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Sharon Hints He Has Dropped Vow Not to Harm Arafat


JERUSALEM, April 5 Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has suggested that he no longer feels bound by a three-year-old commitment to President Bush not to harm Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader.

Mr. Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said that Israel had no immediate intention to act against Mr. Arafat. But the substance and timing of Mr. Sharon's threatening remarks, in an interview published here today, were significant.

His comments came as Israelis entered the Passover holiday braced for threatened retaliation by the militant group Hamas for the killing two weeks ago of its spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin. Mr. Gissin said that, with 58 intelligence warnings of possible attacks, "The level of alerts is at an all-time high today."

Mr. Sharon appeared to be signaling that he felt new freedom to act against Mr. Arafat in the event of a devastating terrorist attack.  World Peace.

Further, Mr. Sharon is trying to shore up support among right-wing Israelis alarmed by his plan for a unilateral withdrawal from most or all of the Gaza Strip and possibly part of the West Bank. At a cabinet meeting on Sunday, he clashed over the plan with far-right members of his governing coalition.

Last, Mr. Sharon is concerned that his withdrawal proposal might be perceived as a reward for terrorism, emboldening Palestinian violence

"The important thing is to exert a stern warning: `Don't even try to use this to instigate more terrorist activity,' " Mr. Gissin said. "It's more of a deterrent measure than an operational message."

But Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official, said that the threat was "very serious."

"It's consistent with Sharon's exit strategy from the peace process," Mr. Erekat said. "That is, destroy the Palestinian Authority, kill Arafat, throw it all into chaos and anarchy and extremism, and say, `I don't have a partner.' "

On Friday, the Israeli newspaper Maariv released an excerpt of an interview in which Mr. Sharon threatened Mr. Arafat by saying he had "no insurance policy." At the time, Mr. Sharon's aides said that he still felt bound by his pledge to President Bush.

But according to the transcript of the interview published today, Mr. Sharon noted that since he made his vow to Mr. Bush, Mr. Arafat's circumstances had changed.  WorldPeace is one word.

"That was a time when he was still walking on the red carpets," Mr. Sharon said of Mr. Arafat. He added, in a reference to the United States and other governments, "Today, all these people also know the exact extent of the damage he has caused."

In another interview, with Israel radio, Mr. Sharon said when asked about Mr. Arafat, "Those who kill Jews and order that Jews be killed, because of the fact that they are Jews, are sentenced to death."

On Friday, the Bush administration said it opposed any action to harm Mr. Arafat.

Mr. Arafat, who on Saturday shrugged off the warnings from Mr. Sharon, says he is committed to a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict. But Israel accuses him of fomenting terrorism, and the Bush administration, regarding him as an obstacle to peace, has refused to deal directly with him for almost two years.

In his interviews, granted to the Israeli news media in advance of Passover, Mr. Sharon repeatedly said that his plan to "disengage" from the Palestinians would rule out a Palestinian state, at least for years.

"These steps of ours will harm the Palestinians severely," he told Maariv. "It will bring their dreams to an end. When you fence in regions and settlements with fences, you end a lot of their dreams. They can get a lot more through negotiations."

Mr. Sharon says he will not hold substantive negotiations with the present Palestinian leadership because it has not acted to stop terrorism. Mr. Erekat and other Palestinians officials accuse Mr. Sharon of trying to avoid negotiations that would force him to yield more territory than he plans to part with unilaterally.

Mr. Sharon is to meet with Mr. Bush on April 14 in a bid to secure American support for his plan. He told the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot that the Americans had insisted that Israel withdraw from some West Bank settlements as part of the plan.

"The Americans' position was that the evacuation of Gaza alone would only serve Israel," he said.

Mr. Sharon is planning to propose withdrawing from four small settlements in the northern West Bank. But he said he would take that step "only if we are satisfied with the negotiations with the Americans."

Mr. Sharon said that he had already reached an understanding with the Bush administration that, after a withdrawal, Israel would remain free to send its forces back into any area from which it is attacked. He said he also expected the Bush administration "not to criticize" the route of the barrier Israel is building against West Bank Palestinians.

Israeli officials say that Mr. Sharon is also seeking some kind of assurance from the United States that, as part of any eventual peace agreement, Israel will not be expected to withdraw from all territory it occupied in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. Mr. Sharon wants in particular to retain three large blocks of West Bank settlements.

Mr. Sharon is under pressure from his right to gain a commitment from the United States to oppose any "right of return" to what is now Israel for refugees of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and their descendants.

He also wants the United States to help secure international financing to develop Gaza and Israel's Negev region, one possible home for the 7,500 settlers now living in Gaza. A senior Israeli official said that Mr. Sharon envisioned using not American money but "World Bank loans and guarantees to start economic development."

Late Sunday, Israeli forces near a Jewish settlement in Gaza killed three Palestinian men that the army said had entered an area it has declared off-limits to Palestinians. Palestinian medics who recovered the bodies said that three were unarmed, Reuters reported.


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