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Israel Bars Arafat from Christmas Festivities


Israel Bars Arafat from Christmas Festivities for Third Year

Two-track Talks for Reviving “Roadmap” in Jerusalem, Gaza

Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) on Tuesday barred President Yasser Arafat from Christmas celebrations in the West Bank city of Bethlehem for a third straight year, injured eleven Palestinians and critically wounded a 13-year old, as Egyptian mediators again started negotiations in Gaza City with Palestinian factions on an Egyptian proposal for a truce.

President Arafat on Tuesday told a Christian delegation at his battered and sandbagged headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah that he hoped to participate in the Christmas festivities this year in Bethlehem, a 12-mile trip to the traditional site of Jesus' birthplace.

Arafat, a Muslim, regularly attended the Bethlehem celebrations before Israel confined him to Ramallah two years ago and reoccupied the West Bank.

“I haven't missed it, except since being besieged in this building,” Arafat said.

Israel's policy is that “Arafat stays where he is,” an Israeli official told AFP.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister for Negotiations Saeb Erekat called Israel's decision "unfortunate.”

Arafat's rating among Palestinians remains more than twice as popular as any other public figure, a poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in Ramallah found on Tuesday.

However Arafat's support fell in the PSR poll to 38 percent from 50 percent in October and his Fatah movement slipped into a tie at 25 percent with the two main Islamist factions of Hamas and Jihad.

IOF Critically Wound 13-year Old Palestinian

Meanwhile IOF on Tuesday shot and wounded 10 Palestinians and critically injured 13-year old Noor Ahmad Izzat Ismael with a live bullet in the head in the northern West Bank Balatah refugee camp, near Nablus.

Fifty IOF military vehicles, including tanks and backed by two US-made Apache helicopters, invaded and sealed off early Tuesday the Balatah camp, claiming it was an ordinary “operation” to arrest “wanted” Palestinian activists.

Clashes erupted with young Palestinians throwing stones at the invading forces, who hit back with live bullets.

IOF announced Tuesday they had arrested 4 “wanted” Palestinians in the Balata refugee camp, 2 in Kufre Ni’ma west of Ramallah and 3 in Beit Kahil north of Hebron.

Two-track Talks for Reviving “Roadmap” Peace Plan

Separately two-track talks for reviving the stalled Middle East “roadmap” peace plan were underway as Palestinians and Israelis held United States-brokered negotiations and Egyptian mediators started new round of ceasefire talks with Palestinian factions.

US State Department official David Satterfield oversaw a meeting in Jerusalem on Monday between senior Palestinian and Israeli officials arranged after a weekend of intensive efforts to restart a stalled US-backed peace “roadmap.”

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat headed the Palestinian delegation and Dov Weisglass, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's chief of staff, led the Israeli team, political sources said.

US State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher said Satterfield's talks focused on checkpoints and movement for Palestinians, among other issues.

“The meeting was intended to encourage both sides to consider a set of constructive and useful steps that will help us move forward with an agenda aimed at improving Palestinian lives,” Boucher said in Washington.

“The good thing is that the two sides are talking,” a Western diplomat said, adding that expectations for significant progress were low.

Satterfield called on both sides to take "concrete steps" to restart talks on the "roadmap" peace plan.

David Satterfield, a senior State Department official, is in the region after attending the annual conference of donor countries to the Palestinian Authority, held in Rome earlier this week. He arrived in Cairo Tuesday.

“The message that had come from those meetings from our recent discussions is very clear,” Satterfield said. “All sides - Palestinians, Israelis, the donors and the international community - have responsibilities to move this peace process forward for the sake of the Palestinian people, for the sake of the Israeli people and for the sake of regional peace and security.”

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei, who formed a new government last month, said that his office is continuing efforts to arrange a summit with his Israeli counterpart Sharon but that a date still has not been set.

Qurei criticised Sharon’s widely - reported plans for unilateral actions on Saturday during talks with David Satterfield.

Qurei warned that Sharon's "unilateral measures" would damage any attempts to find a just and lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

Egyptians Have Not Given Up

Egyptian mediators, meanwhile, started new negotiations with Palestinian factions in Gaza City on Tuesday after talks on a truce failed in Cairo last week, Palestinian sources said. A truce is seen as crucial to reviving the “roadmap” plan, which was endorsed by the United Nations Security Council recently.

“We have not given up. We will continue to work to reach a comprehensive ceasefire,” an Egyptian official said.

The Egyptian delegation of mediators is led by generals Mustafa al-Buheiri and Mohammed Ibrahim, assistants to Egyptian intelligence services chief Omar Suleiman.

Palestinian sources said the two major-generals were expected to convey a message from Washington to the factions.

In an interview with AFP last week, Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin said: “We have not closed the door to dialogue and to talks” with the Palestine National Authority (PNA).

But Yassin said there was no hope of a breakthrough if the Israelis were not willing to respond.

“It is not possible to talk about a hudna if the other side does not take part,” he said, using the Arabic word for truce.

However Israel was not responsive.

Israeli “Defense” Minister Shaul Mofaz on Tuesday told a conference on national security in the city of Herzliya: “We are not willing to be party to a truce” between the PNA and Palestinian groups.

83 percent of Palestinians support a complete, mutual ceasefire and 53 percent said they would back a PNA crackdown on violators of such a truce, but 80% worried that such a crackdown could lead to civil war, a poll by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) found on Tuesday.

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