Arafat must halt attacks, Israeli PM tells Bush

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Israel's armed forces tightened their long and punishing siege of the West Bank city of Hebron yesterday as Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister, prepared for talks with President George Bush in America.

Witnesses said the army moved piles of rocks and mounds of earth to seal off more roads leading into the overwhelmingly Arab city after a ferocious confrontation on Monday between Palestinian guerrillas and Jewish settlers and Israeli troops.

Twelve Palestinians and five Israelis, including a seven-year-old Jewish boy, were wounded in the battle, which began after Palestinians fired on a settlers' enclave. The Jerusalem Brigade, an armed wing of the Islamic Jihad movement, said it launched the attack.

The violence was a further reminder of the precariously threadbare condition of the ceasefire, which Mr Sharon was due to discuss with Mr Bush last night. The Prime Minister underscored this earlier, telling a New York audience that there was, in reality, no ceasefire on the ground.

Even before last night's talks began, Mr Sharon had come out against his US allies on a crucial issue. He had prefaced the talks with a speech in which he publicly insisted on a complete end to Palestinian attacks on Israelis before proceeding any further along the journey back to the negotiating table.

There had to be a "total cessation of violence" before he would move ahead with the American-backed Mitchell plan for restarting talks. He told the reception of Jewish leaders in New York: "We cannot change [this demand], and you have to know we will not change it." His conditions ­ outlined on the same day that he called Yasser Arafatthe "head of a terrorist gang" ­ jar sharply with the views of the US State Department and prompted speculation among his critics over whether he was serious about resuming talks.

America believes Mr Sharon is unrealistic in expecting Mr Arafat to secure an end to attacks by Palestinian guerrillas, who have killed six Israelis since George Tenet, director of the CIA, reached a bilateral agreement for a ceasefire a fortnight ago. American officials talk instead in terms of "100 per cent effort" by Mr Arafat.

Yet Mr Sharon has arrived in Washington for his second visit in three months, repeating his mantra that there can be no progress without an absolute end to violence and that he will never negotiate "under fire". He made no mention of the violent activities of his armed forces. The Israeli army has lowered its use of force since the Tenet deal, yet eight Palestinians have been killed in two weeks.

Mr Sharon arrived for his meeting with Mr Bush under international pressure to avoid stalling and to move forward with the Mitchell plan, the blueprint for peace drawn up by a committee led by the former US senator George Mitchell. But the process is shot through with distrust and hostility, and obstacles litter the path.

One is the question of timing. The Israeli premier is insisting that the Palestinians first fulfil Israel's security demands. Doubts also abound over whether Mr Sharon has accepted the committee's call for a freeze on all settlement building in the occupied territories.

Only this week, Israel published more tenders for homes in its largest illegal settlement, suggesting it has no intention of ending the relentless state-sponsored, peace-corroding land grab in which the number of settlers on the West Bank rocketed to almost 200,000 during the seven-year Oslo talks.