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Palestinians assert right to declare own state


JERUSALEM - A top Palestinian political group said yesterday that Palestinians reserve the right to declare a state if no Middle East peace deal can be reached, a move that mirrors Israeli talk of possible unilateral action.

Peace efforts have long been based on the premise that all major steps must be taken by mutual agreement. But with talks stalled, both sides have warned that they could abandon discussions and attempt to reach their aims without a formal deal.

The Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee, which is led by Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian president, met late Friday night. It issued a statement early yesterday saying the Palestinians had "the right to declare an independent democratic Palestine on all the territories that were occupied" since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

The Palestinian move comes three weeks after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that if the Middle East peace plan did not produce progress in the coming months, his government would be prepared to take steps on its own to separate Israelis and Palestinians.

Sharon's government is building a separation barrier in the West Bank, saying it is intended prevent Palestinian attacks. Palestinians have been fiercely critical of the barrier, which runs through West Bank land that the Palestinians want for a future state.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the Palestinians remain committed to the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which envisions a comprehensive settlement that would end decades of conflict and establish a Palestinian state. But Erekat said the Israelis were threatening to "bury the two-state solution by building the wall in the West Bank and confining us to towns that are prisons."

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