Arabs united in condemnation of Israel's unilateral withdrawal plan

Furious officials of the Arab League joined forces yesterday with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian Authority President, in an attack on President George Bush for backing Ariel Sharon's demands in the accord the two men reached in Washington on Wednesday.

The Palestinian Authority took concerted steps to mobilise international opinion against US endorsement of Israel's claim to keep hold of parts of the West Bank and the refusal to grant Palestinian refugees the right of return to lands inside Israel.

Without endorsing Mr Arafat's prediction of increased violent resistance to the Israeli occupation, Hesham Youssef, the spokesman for the league's secretary general, declared: "The United States has adopted Israel's position. We expect the United States to play honest broker. We accused it before of being unbalanced. Now we can't even say that. We are in a very difficult situation, which is unprecedented. This is a fundamental milestone in the Arab-Israeli conflict."

Mr Arafat earlier insisted that the Palestinian people would not retreat from their goal of achieving liberty, national sovereignty and a state with "Holy Jerusalem" as its capital. Declaring that the Palestinians have the right to return to "their homeland" inside Israel, Mr Arafat told a news conference in Ramallah: "Israeli crimes will be faced with more resistance to force Israeli occupiers and herds of settlers to leave Palestinian land ... Israel will not achieve security through occupation, arrogance and assassinating our leaders."

Palestinians in the shadow of two big Israeli settlements were critical of President Bush, but appeared less surprised and more bleakly fatalistic than their political leaders about the accord that Mr Bush struck with Mr Sharon in Washington on Tuesday night.

In Bethany, the Arab town close to Ma'ale Adumim - the 25,000-strong settlement that Mr Sharon vowed this week would remain Israeli "for ever and ever" - was more preoccupied with the US President's conditional endorsement of the separation barrier cutting through swathes of the Palestinian West Bank. Standing outside his deserted coffee shop, a mere 200 metres from the barrier - which, at this point, is a wall of nine-feet-tall concrete slabs cutting the town off from outer east Jerusalem - Mousa al-Mokahel, 56, said of the two leaders: "Neither of them want peace. The withdrawal won't make a difference. Sharon never wanted Gaza in the first place, not since the war of 1967. And if Sharon wanted to separate Palestinian and Jewish areas, why didn't he build this wall on the lines of the 1967 borders? He wants the land without the peace."

Mr Mokahel said that, as with the other shops in the vicinity, his takings had dwindled from 400 shekels (£50) per day to virtually nothing because of the loss of the busy passing trade between the town and east Jerusalem. Having worked in Jewish central Jerusalem for 28 years, he was now unable to get to the town, even for cataract treatment.

There will be a lot of pressures on Mr Arafat to accept the disengagement plan from King Abdullah of Jordan and Presidnet Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Mr Mokahel, saying he would accept the continued existence of Ma'ale Adumim if he and other Palestinians could recover their freedom of movement and work, added: "We have no power to change things. The most important thing for an average Palestinian is to earn a livelihood, and protect his dignity and honour. The negotiation after this Bush plan will be very difficult and complicated. I am against violence, explosions. We want elections. We want to build our institutions. We need to change European and American public opinion so they can understand the conditions we are living in. We should not compromise on our rights, even if it takes us a hundred years, but we should not use violence."

Nine kilometres away in Hizma, within sight of the Jewish settlement of Pisgat Ze'ev, Mohammed Daher, a grocer, 56, whose family fled to Bethlehem from Ramle in the 1948 war, said it had come as no surprise that the US President had accepted Mr Sharon's terms. "America has lost its credibility," he said. "It was better under Clinton. It all changed after the occupation of Iraq. There used to be one country under occupation but now there are two. The Americans cannot support the Palestinian cause because they are doing even worse things in Iraq than the Israelis here."

His son, Ibrahim, 25, agreed, saying: "What the Americans are doing in Fallujah is like what the Israelis did [during Operation Defensive Shield] in Jenin." But the Daher family, who would be candidates for the right of return to Israel ruled out on Wednesday night, disagreed about the right's fundamental importance.

While saying that the intifada had, so far, achieved little, if anything, for Palestinians, Ibrahim said: "There will be peace if the Jews stop violence and give us the right to return to our homes in Israel." But his father said: "I would agree to stay in the West Bank if there was a real [Palestinian] state and the refugees returned to such a state. We don't want to be at war for ever." But he said Mr Bush had left little hope of that happening.

"He told us he wanted a Palestinian state by 2005," the father said, "but now he has approved the wall. Where is the state going to be? Can there be a state without borders? Without water? Without air?"

PREVIOUS PEACE PLANS - AND WHY THEY FAILED

Oslo Accords, September 1993

One of the greatest hopes for peace in the Middle East saw Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, the then Israeli prime minister, share a Nobel peace prize. The agreement involved Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with Mr Arafat's PLO recognising Israel's right to exist and renouncing violence. The failure of talks and the intifada rendered the accords irrelevant.

Wye River agreement, October 23 1998

The agreement by Benyamin Netanyahu, the then Israeli prime minister, and Yasser Arafatrequired Israelis to withdraw from the West Bank and release some Palestinian prisoners, while the Palestinians were to crack down on militants and drop aspirations for the destruction of Israel. By December Israel had suspended the pact.

Arab plan, February 2002

This plan, proposed by the Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, offered Israel recognition by all Arab states, including respect for its borders and an acknowledgement of its right to exist, in return for a withdrawal from all the territory captured by Israel in 1967. Ariel Sharon insisted on an end to Palestinian violence as a precondition for political progress.

'Quartet' plan, September 2002

Proposed by four heavyweights - the UN, EU, US and Russia - the plan envisaged a Palestinian state by 2005 and a halt to settlement building on occupied land. But it was rubbished by Ariel Sharon, who demanded a stop to all Palestinian violence and the removal of Yasser Arafat from any position of influence before any further moves towards peace.

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