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Israeli-Palestinian summit falls short


JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas met yesterday but failed to build on the hopes raised four months ago by their pledge to end more than four years of bloodshed.

In a summit overshadowed by a recent rash of violence, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders ended their two-hour meeting at Sharon's official residence reminded of how far apart they remain on fundamental issues, including security, travel restrictions and the fate of Palestinian prisoners.

Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said the session had proved "difficult" and did not meet the Palestinians' expectations.

"In all the basic issues for which we were expecting positive responses, there were none," Qureia said at a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

From the start, Sharon used the meeting to express disappointment with Abbas' seeming inability to rein in militants since their summit Feb. 8 at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik.

"When we were in Sharm el-Sheik, the chairman said they would act to stop terror and to dismantle terrorist infrastructure, but in practice this did not happen," Sharon said, scolding Abbas in a video clip of the meeting released by the Israeli government.

Abbas responded: "Every bullet and rocket that is fired toward Israel is as if it was fired against us. I don't want terror. In the last five months, there has been a significant drop in terror. I don't have a magic wand. Only you can help us and the Palestinian people."

Later, Sharon advised Abbas to concentrate his security forces in order to overwhelm the militants and demonstrate his power and leadership.

"Don't say you are weak, because in the end people will believe it," Sharon said.

Abbas, Sharon and their advisers had crowded around the dining table at Sharon's Jerusalem residence. Participants said the exchanges were by turns "angry" and "businesslike."

An opportunity missed

The summit had been billed as an opportunity for the Palestinians and Israelis to hammer out details of Israel's planned evacuation of all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank, scheduled to take place in less than two months. But the meeting produced few of the hoped-for breakthroughs.

"We decided during the meeting on the complete coordination of our exit from the Gaza Strip," Sharon said in Jerusalem, without describing their agreements in detail.

Palestinian officials fear that the tight trade and travel restrictions placed on Gaza will continue after the Israeli withdrawal and are demanding permission to reopen the airport, build a seaport and ease travel restrictions. The officials said they had hoped to secure guarantees of trade and travel access but failed, leaving them unable to plan for Gaza's future.

"What does it mean that Israelis are leaving all areas around the airport and we cannot use it?" Quereia asked.

But Raanan Gissin, a Sharon adviser, said Israeli officials gave Abbas permission yesterday to begin planning airport repairs with the understanding that the facility cannot reopen until Israel's security concerns are met.

"If they got an open airport with free access to the outside world, we want to make sure this doesn't serve as a channel for smuggling weapons or smuggling terrorists in and out of the country," Gissin said.

Israeli officials said more Palestinian prisoners will be released and that the West Bank cities of Bethlehem and Qalqiliya would be handed over to the Palestinians if Abbas takes concrete steps to end violence.

Under the Sharm el-Sheik agreement, Israeli had agreed to turn over five Palestinian towns. So far only two - Jericho and Tulkarem - have been returned to Palestinian control.

Israel also promised to allow 26,000 more Palestinian laborers and 13,400 more Palestinian merchants to work in Israel, a step that could help rebuild the Palestinian economy.

Responding to reports that Palestinian officials were unhappy with the results of the meeting, Gissin said: "They had very high expectations. There's no free lunch. There are certain steps they have to take for their own good."

Stepped-up violence

Many of the discussions, however, were affected by a surge in militant activity against Israeli targets and the Israeli crackdown on militants.

Early yesterday, Israeli forces arrested 52 suspected members of Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian militant group that claimed responsibility for a number of recent attacks on Israelis, including Monday's ambush on an Israeli vehicle that killed the driver and wounded a teenage passenger.

Islamic Jihad also carried out the suicide bombing Feb. 25 at a Tel Aviv nightclub that killed five Israelis, the deadliest attack on Israelis since the truce began. Israel's decision to pursue known militants is a sharp departure from its promise in February to exercise restraint.

Israeli forces thwarted a potential suicide attack Monday when a young Palestinian woman was captured at a Gaza crossing with explosives under her clothing. The woman, who had been given permission to enter Israel for medical treatment, apparently planned to blow herself up in the hospital.

Meanwhile, Israeli forces shot and killed a Palestinian teenager attempting to cross from Gaza into Israel.

"The last 48 hours cast a black cloud over the meeting," said Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator who attended yesterday's session.

Still, Israelis and Palestinians had not abandoned hope that their differences might be worked out.

"It all depends on determined action to stop terror, violence and incitement," said David Baker, a spokesman for Sharon. "If [Abbas] will not be able to do it because of political pressure, then no one can do it."

Despite the tension during the summit, Sharon and Abbas shook hands and at meeting's end, Sharon walked his Palestinian guests to the door.

"He was so courteous," Erekat said.

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