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Israel Loosens Restrictions on Arafat

The announcement comes after the Palestinian Authority detained four of the five militants accused of assassinating Sharon cabinet member Rehavam Zeevi in October, in accordance with Israeli demands.

Israeli tanks have held positions 100 yards from the entrance to Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters for two months. The Palestinian leader has been allowed to leave the building only to pray at a mosque and visit wounded Palestinians at a hospital.

The Palestinian Authority had hoped Israel would lift all restrictions on Arafat’s movements, however Arafat was told he must get permission from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon should he wish to leave Ramallah.

Arafat did not respond directly to Israel’s announcement, but his lieutenants angrily canceled security talks scheduled for Sunday evening.

“The decision doesn’t mean anything except the continuation of aggression against our people and will not lead to anything except more violence and tension,” Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a top Arafat aide, said.

A statement issued after a Palestinian security meeting said the “continued siege” of Arafat was a “severe violation” of agreements between the Palestinians and the Israelis and a “threat to the security and stability of the whole region.”

The Palestinians are hoping to sway the debate in the United Nations Security Council which is scheduled to look at the violence in the Middle East this week.

Arab countries are expected to push for council intervention in the region. Israel and the United States firmly oppose such a move.

Last week, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said a broader international effort was necessary to prevent further escalation in the violence.

Meanwhile, Sharon is balancing contradictory forces within his cabinet. Right-wing politicians objected to giving Arafat any freedom, while moderates argued that the detainment of suspected militants is an opening in the peace process that must be explored.

On Thursday, Sharon took many officials and military leaders by surprise when he announced he would create buffer zones to separate Palestinians and Israelis. There was no apparent follow-up.

Also last week, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced he would recognize the state of Israel if it withdrew from occupied territories and restarted peace negotiations.

Sharon told cabinet members that he is considering a proper response, but would not reveal specifics.

Violence continues

The latest diplomatic maneuvers come despite continuing violence that left five dead on Monday.

Two Israelis were killed and dozens wounded in separate attacks in the West Bank. Two Palestinians opened fire on a bus stop in a disputed section of Jerusalem, wounding at least ten. Police fired back, killing one of the assailants.

In an earlier attack, two Israelis were shot and killed at a roadblock near an Israeli settlement south of Bethlehem.

Meanwhile, two Palestinians were shot and killed in confrontations at Israeli checkpoints.

A 16-year-old Palestinian girl was killed when she ran toward an army checkpoint near Tulkarem brandishing a knife, the army said. According to the girl’s father, she left a suicide note saying she wanted Israelis to know they would never be safe.

Also a Palestinian man was shot and killed while taking his wife to the hospital to give birth. The woman, also injured in the attack, survived and gave birth at the hospital.

The latest violence follows the accidental firing upon an armored car carrying a senior Palestinian negotiator by Israel security officers. The official had given notice that he would be driving to Ramallah, but the soldiers did not recognized the car. Eight bullets struck the vehicle but the negotiator was not injured. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres later called to apologize.

Soldiers at checkpoints have been on heightened alert since Tuesday, when Palestinian gunmen killed six soldiers at a West Bank roadblock.