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Arafat Announces Elections, Condemns Violence

Although the Palestinian parliament is scheduled to discuss election procedures, Arafat said the elections could only proceed when Israel implements a deal to remove forces from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. So far, troops have only moved back from Bethlehem.

“Presidential and parliamentary elections must take place — but in a democratic atmosphere. Israel must lift its siege of Palestinian cities, withdraw its tanks so that our people will be able to exert their democratic rights,” he said.

The 73-year-old president said he and his people “stand firmly against all kinds of terrorism, whether it is by states, groups or individuals.” While condemning attacks on Israelis, Arafat said Israel was guilty of exploiting the Sept. 11 attacks to equate Palestinian actions with terrorism.

The Associated Press reported that a draft version of Arafat’s speech included paragraphs calling for a halt to suicide bombings, but these were not in the delivered speech.

Arafat called for renewed peace talks, saying to Israeli citizens, “I would like to say that we want to achieve peace with you. We want security and stability for us and for you. This peace is still ahead of us.”

In what was interpreted as a joke, Arafat also commented he is prepared to leave office if legislators wish it.

“Unless you want to bring somebody else in the executive authority. I wish you would, and give me a rest,” he said smiling.

Aides later said Arafat has repeatedly joked about resignation during internal meetings. The leader has thus far resisted U.S.-backed pressure to appoint a prime minister to oversee day-to-day duties.

Twelve Palestinian legislators accused of involvement in attacks against Israelis were barred from traveling to the West Bank city of Ramallah to attend the address. These members, as well as other lawmakers from the Gaza Strip, remained in the area and participated via video conference.

Over the last two years, the Palestinian legislature has met infrequently, due to Israeli travel restrictions.

There was complaint from Palestinian legislators that Arafat has not presented his new Cabinet for the approval of parliament. Lawmakers have also demanded the president choose a definite election date, which he has not yet done, and it is unclear whether Arafat holds a majority in the 88-person legislature.

Israeli hardliners criticized Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for allowing the parliamentary meeting to take place, saying it could give Arafat renewed credibility.

The legislature is scheduled to reconvene Tuesday.

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