Powell urges end to 'siege'

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — RAMALLAH, West Bank - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell called on Israel to lift the "siege" of Palestinian territories and pressed both sides yesterday to take steps to halt violence, but failed to get a clear "yes" to either appeal.

On his second day in the Middle East, Powell plunged into the thicket of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, winning some points with both sides but arousing anger and cynicism toward the United States among Palestinians on the street.


The Bush administration has yet to decide how it wants to deal with the conflict - what its policy will be and how deeply it will be involved in Middle East peacemaking. This decision may be two months away.

All Powell has said is that President Bush will adopt a "leadership" role, but the administration does not want to make the peace process its top priority in the region.


But with the violence becoming more alarming, Powell made an initial effort during his brief visit at trying to curb the killing and suffering.

"Perhaps some avenues have been opened, but that remains to be seen," he said cautiously.

In a meeting with Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon, who has not yet formed a government, Powell urged Israel to lift the economic stranglehold on the Palestinian territories.

The "siege," as Powell called it, using a Palestinian term, has barred Palestinian workers from their jobs in Israel, boosting unemployment and poverty, and has sharply curbed commerce between Israel and the territories and among Palestinian towns and villages. Israel is also holding onto about $50 million in tax revenue due the Palestinian Authority, pushing the fledgling government closer to collapse.

Speaking to reporters later, Powell said that the economic pressure "contributes to the overall deterioration" and that hardship imposed on Palestinian families "does nothing to quiet the security situation."

But Sharon set conditions: Arafat must make an "unequivocal public declaration to stop the violence," take action to stop incitement of the population and resume cooperation between Palestinian security officials and Israeli authorities. In the past, this cooperation provided warning of planned acts of terrorism against Israelis.

If Arafat complied, Sharon said, goods and raw materials would be allowed into the territories and Israel would allow a "controlled entry" of workers into the country.

Powell duly conveyed Sharon's demands in a meeting with Arafat at authority headquarters in Ramallah. A Sharon spokesman said later that Arafat had promised to "exercise his influence." But in public, Arafat rejected the idea that the bloodshed was the Palestinians' fault.


"Are we the ones sending tanks, ... bombs, helicopter gunships?" Arafat retorted to a questioner. He also claimed Israel had prevented him from taking his car or helicopter between Gaza and the West Bank, which the army later denied.

In broadcast interviews aired beforehand, other Palestinian leaders blamed Israelis for the violence.

Hatem Abdel Qader, a member of the Palestinian parliament, said in a broadcast interview that "Powell is trying to equate between Palestinian defense to their rights and Israeli violence. He is trying to deal with the victim and murderer on equal bases."

Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Arafat, said, "In our point of view, violence is of Israeli origin. We also believe that occupation is the highest form of terror."

After his meeting with Sharon, Powell said he had been "quite disturbed" by the briefing he got the night before on the security situation from Shaul Mofaz, Israel's chief of staff. "The level of violence has been escalating and it has many different pieces to it, whether it's sniper fire, mortar fire."

Powell's meeting with Arafat practically coincided with a pair of shooting attacks in which two Jewish settlers, a man and a woman, were injured.


On the streets of Ramallah, Powell's visit was either denounced because of his determination to contain Iraq or dismissed as pointless.'This is the Arab problem. We are a nation. What the hell are Americans doing interfering in the Arab world? [They] make everything miserable and split it into three pieces," said Raymond Joseph Rezyq, 58, a farmer and tradesman from the nearby village of Silwad.

Waving Palestinian and Iraqi flags and carrying pictures of Saddam Hussein, a group of demonstrators gathered outside the gates of authority headquarters, chanting pro-Iraq and anti-American slogans. Many Palestinians link U.S. action against Iraq with Israeli crackdowns against them.

One demonstrator hoisted a sign, the work of the militant Islamic group Hamas, featuring a picture of terror financier Ossama bin Laden.

In the crowd, Mustafa Barghouti, who heads the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, said he was "happy to see a black American foreign minister. It's really something wonderful. [But] American policy has not been balanced. If they want to play the role of a superpower, they have to be more balanced."

A sign on a nearby wall offered a nastier comment about Powell's heritage: "Oreo go home."