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Israel calls for Mideast cease-fire


JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called on Palestinians last night to join in an immediate cease-fire, and his government ordered Israeli troops not to fire except in life-threatening situations.

In a nationwide address, Sharon endorsed much of a report by an international commission led by former Sen. George J. Mitchell of Maine, which spells out steps to end eight months of bloodshed that has claimed more than 500 lives, the majority of them Palestinian.

Sharon said the report offers "a positive basis which may enable both sides to break the cycle of violence and return to the negotiating table."

But he rejected a key recommendation for a freeze on Jewish settlements in occupied territory, including the expansion of existing settlements.

The Palestinian Authority had previously endorsed the report in full. One top Palestinian official, Ahmed Abdel Rahman, dismissed Sharon's call for a cease-fire, calling Israel the aggressor, and others accused Sharon of dooming the Mitchell initiative with his refusal to freeze settlements.

"It's very unfortunate that the prime minister of Israel has rejected the Mitchell report," said Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian negotiator and spokesman. "It seems to me he did not read the Mitchell report and does not intend to read it."

The Mitchell commission, comprising respected American and European politicians, was created last fall after a summit at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, an early international effort to end the wave of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

The report's recommendations were endorsed Monday by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who signaled more intensive U.S. involvement in the Middle East peace process by designating William J. Burns, the nominee for assistant secretary of state for the Near East, as his special envoy to the region. Powell, who left last night for Africa, said he had no immediate plan to see Sharon or Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, but would not rule out seeing both.

Upon releasing the report Monday, Mitchell called for an immediate end to the violence and for resumption of security cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. This would require Palestinians to help Israel prevent terrorist attacks on Israelis.

Mitchell called for a cooling-off period and for confidence-building measures, including action against incitement by both sides, condemnation of terrorism and the arrest of known terrorists by the Palestinian Authority. He called for Israel to "freeze all settlement activity, including the 'natural growth' of existing settlements."

In their reactions to the report, Israel and the Palestinians emphasized elements important to them, but Sharon was the first to take a step toward carrying out its recommendations.

"I propose to our neighbors to work together for an immediate cease-fire and hope the Palestinians will answer the call positively," Sharon said.

The new engagement rules for the army, revealed last night, apparently halt weeks of stepped-up Israeli military action in which the army not only responded to attacks by Palestinians but launched pre-emptive strikes.

Actions have included the assassination of suspected terrorists, giving the army free rein to enter Palestinian-controlled areas to demolish buildings and destroy farmland, and reacting to a suicide bombing with airstrikes by fighter jets.

The Defense Ministry instructed the army to "cease fire and adhere to rules of engagement which are used only in life-threatening situations."

In practice, according to Israel Radio, this will stop "all kinds of initiated activities," the Israeli euphemism for planned attacks, and require soldiers not to fire except in life-threatening situations, in response to "very effective fire" from Palestinians or to protect evacuations of injured people. Israeli forces will be barred from entering Palestinian areas without permission from political authorities.

"It's our initiative to test the Palestinians. We're giving it our best shot by not firing one shot," said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon.

The new Israeli measures followed a meeting late Monday between Sharon and U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk, who has been tapped as part of a U.S. team to begin implementing the recommendations of the Mitchell report.

While the Bush administration has become more deeply involved than previously, Palestinians, who believe Washington favors Israel, want to preserve the international effort reflected in the Mitchell commission. They have called on all participants in the Sharm el-Sheikh summit to convene a working-level meeting to lay out steps to implement the recommendations of the Mitchell report.

Israel dismissed the latest Palestinian proposal as game-playing.

Asked last night about a settlement freeze, Sharon repeated his government's position that it will not establish new communities in the West Bank and Gaza but will allow existing settlements to expand according to their "regular needs" and build more access roads. He said such steps should not be seen by Palestinians as creating new "facts" that would prejudice a final settlement on sovereignty over land claimed by the Palestinians.

Members of the Labor Party, part of Sharon's governing coalition, want to go further. Parliament Speaker Avraham Burg called for a temporary freeze, and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is reportedly trying to find a formula that the Palestinians can accept. Polls show that 60 percent of Israelis would accept a settlement freeze in exchange for a cease-fire.

Opposition leader Yossi Sarid, head of the Meretz Party, accused Sharon of "posturing" and said he is draining the Mitchell report of substance by not accepting a freeze. Opponents of settlement expansion see "natural growth" as a way of deepening Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

The settlements, viewed by much of the world as violating international law, have long been opposed by the U.S. government. But on Monday, Powell sidestepped Mitchell's call for a freeze, saying: "What I want to see is what possibilities exist to bridge the very, very sharp differences and disagreements that exist between the two sides with respect to expansion within existing settlements."

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