Arafat scoffs at offer to move Israeli settlers

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The scale of the task facing Ariel Sharon and Abu Mazen, the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers, became clear yesterday a day after they pledged to implement the road-map peace plan at the Aqaba summit.

Yasser Arafat, who was excluded from the summit in Jordan by the US and Israel, but who still wields the real power in the Palestinian Authority, denounced the summit yesterday, saying that Mr Sharon had offered nothing.

As Abu Mazen planned to meet Palestinian militant leaders in Gaza to persuade them to call a ceasefire, prominent Palestinians made it clear they would oppose any attempt to disarm the militants. Abu Mazen has pledged to end the armed intifada.

Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli Defence Minister, met army commanders yesterday to discuss the forced evacuation and demolition of Jewish settler outposts in the occupied territories that are considered illegal under Israeli law, which Mr Sharon pledged at Aqaba to dismantle.

But settlers marched in their tens of thousands in Jerusalem on Wednesday night to protest against Mr Sharon's promise and vowed to fight tooth and claw to hold on to the outposts.

Mr Arafat dismissed the Aqaba summit yesterday, saying: "Unfortunately, the Israelis did not give anything. What does it mean to move a trailer here or there?" The outposts usually consist of a few caravans and trailers. The US and Israel say Mr Arafat is now on the sidelines and that his views are no longer relevant, but he remains the head of the Palestinian Authority.

Most Palestinians, including the militant Islamic groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, are believed to be prepared officially to declare their support for a hudna, the Arabic for ceasefire, after Abu Mazen promised in Aqaba an end to militant violence. But many Palestinians, including prominent figures in the PA, oppose any attempt to disarm the militant factions. Abu Mazen said at the summit that he would see to it that weapons were "only in the hands of those who are in charge of upholding the law and order".

The Palestinian security services are permitted to hold 15,000 weapons under the Oslo peace accords. But Israeli sources estimate that there are at least 40,000 in the occupied territories.

Palestinian activists have purchased weapons from the Israeli mafia and arms dealers looking to make huge profits. Weapons have been smuggled through tunnels under the Egyptian border with Gaza.

Hamas has managed to manufacture crude Qassam rockets and fired many of them into Israel. Palestinian bomb experts working with various groups have made explosives used in suicide attacks.

Nayef Sweitat, a Palestinian Authority delegate from Jenin, said: "The collection of weapons is a red line. Fatah [the main Palestinian faction] is not going to hand over its weapons to the authority. It will only do so after the creation of the Palestinian state and withdrawal of the Israeli army to pre-1967 borders."

He added: "The chance that we will give Israel is a ceasefire and not collection of the weapons. It is the last chance. It will never repeated."

Ahmed Jbara, 68, the longest-serving Palestinian prisoner, was released on Tuesday after serving 27 years in prison for killing 13 Israelis and wounding dozens.

He said that handing weapons over to Israel or the Palestinian Authority was not conceivable for many Palestinians. "We cannot drop our weapons. If we do that we will never have an independent Palestinian state. Can't you see that there are tanks in Ramallah?" Mr Jbara said.