Trying to hold together a coalition with Arab nations for the war against terrorism, Washington urged Israeli troops immediately pull out from six West Bank cities.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon deployed forces in and around Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Jenin, Ramallah, Qalqiliya, and Tul Karminto after the Palestinian Authority failed to hand over members of the Popular Liberation Front of Palestine. The PLFP claimed responsibility for the assassination of Interior Minister of Tourism Rehavam Zeevi last Wednesday, saying it was in retaliation for the murder of their leader, Abu Ali Mustafa, in August.
In a meeting today with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Secretary of State Colin Powell reiterated the U.S. demand. But afterward, Peres told reporters he “didn’t discover any contradiction” between U.S. and Israeli policy on the matter.
“The term ‘immediate’ was not as sharp as you describe,” Peres said, “because the secretary knows that we ourselves would like to have an immediate withdrawal, but I think the secretary understands that the minute the Palestinians take the necessary steps, this may happen.”
Earlier today, Peres told CNN Israel would pull out once Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat “responded positively” to demands that he arrest the men who killed Zeevi.
On Monday, U.S. State Department spokesman Phil Reeker read a strongly worded statement saying, in part, “Israel Defense Forces should be withdrawn immediately from all Palestinian controlled areas and no further such incursions should be made.”
Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer brushed aside the demand.
“The things that came out of there [the United States], with all due respect, are not valid,” he said.
Israeli newspapers described the exchange as a sign of a growing rift in relations with the United States, which provides Israel with $3 billion in annual aid.
Peres has suggested the United States freeze the financial assets of two Palestinian extremist groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as it did for groups and people associated with Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida network. If the U.S. did not include the two Middle Eastern terrorist groups, he said, the legitimacy of an international coalition against terrorism would be damaged.
Monday’s State Department statement also called on the Palestinian Authority “to do all in its power to halt violence and terror,” adding that failure to do so “is absolutely unacceptable.”
The Palestinian leader says he is doing everything he can to stop the violence, but that Israeli actions have fueled anger beyond his control.
The PLO’s Supreme Security Council has outlawed the military wing of the PFLP and Palestinian security officials said they had arrested more than 30 militants since Wednesday.
However Arafat’s ability to crack down on radical groups was weakened after the militant Islamic group Hamas vowed to avenge Monday’s killing of one of its top bombmakers, Ayman Halaweh. Israeli officials had no comment on the car explosion that killed Halaweh, but Sharon’s office said in a statement Halaweh was involved in eight suicide bombings in which 48 people were killed — including one at a Tel Aviv disco in June in which 21 people were killed.
Pressure is also mounting on Sharon. Members of Peres’ center-left Labor Party, a key coalition partner, threatened Monday to consider pulling out of his government if the offensive against the Palestinian Authority continues.
Fighting has been particularly intense in Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, where Israeli forces are stationed a few hundred yards inside the city.
So far, nearly 26 Palestinians and one Israeli have died in the clashes.
At least 656 Palestinians and 177 Israelis have been killed since the revolt began in September 2000 after peace talks stalled.