Israel defies Western appeals over 'closed military area' on Arab land

West Bank
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Israel has openly defied Western pleas to avoid extending its conflict with the Palestinians in the aftermath of the attacks on the United States by confirming that its army is to turn a large tract of Arab land on the West Bank into a "closed military area".

The decision, which violates international law, has deepened the growing belief among European nations that Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, is undermining Washington's plans to recruit Arab and Islamic states into a coalition.

Mr Sharon has made clear he does not intend to adapt Israel's policy towards the Palestinians to accommodate international pressure to cool off the conflict so as not to deter Arab countries from joining the American drive to crush those behind last week's terror attacks. In interviews to mark the Jewish New Year, Mr Sharon said: "Our clear, unequivocal message is that this will not be at our expense."

The worry among the Europeans is that Israel's increasingly harsh tactics will inflame the conflict, stirring up emotions in countries, such as Egypt or Jordan, with close ties to the Palestinian cause. This does not appear to have deterred Mr Sharon, who has launched a drive to equate the terror against the US with atrocities suffered by Israelis in its long territorial dispute with the people whose lands Israel occupies.

The closed military zone, which the army says is to come into force next Monday, will be along a 20-mile stretch of land between the Palestinian towns of Jenin and Tulkarm in the north-western West Bank. Palestinians will be banned from entering the area without a permit, and will risk being shot if they do so. It will be two miles wide in places and sweeps through three Arab villages.

Israel says the zone is to prevent suicide bombers from coming in from the West Bank. It rejects the criticism of international diplomats, including the United Nations envoy, Terje Larsen, who has warned before that its policy of locking down the occupied territories tends to increase the number of such attacks.

The Palestinians condemned the plan as the first step towards annexation of their land.

The Europeans have watched with increasing displeasure as Mr Sharon has stepped up military pressure on the Palestinians since Tuesday's catastrophe, mindful that the world's attention was on America. Israel has sent tanks on raids into Ramallah, Jenin (twice) and Jericho, launched missile strikes on Gaza, and shelled a suburb of Bethlehem with tanks. More than 20 Palestinians have been killed. Although America is always far softer on Israel, its close ally, Mr Sharon's approach is heightening tensions with the Bush administration.

Mr Sharon has also postponed truce talks between his Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, and Yasser Arafat, ignoring pressure from the US and European nations to go ahead. Yesterday, he said the meeting could go ahead, but only after 48 hours of quiet.

The Israeli military have reported signs that the Palestinian leader has moved to reduce the number of attacks on Israel, despite the killing of three Israelis and continuing mortar, grenade and shooting attacks in the last week. In a New Year greeting to the Israelis, Mr Arafat said yesterday he had issued "strong and clear instructions for a full commitment to a ceasefire".

But reports of violence continued. The Israeli army killed one Palestinian and wounded 15 others, including five boys, in fighting in Gaza and Ramallah. Four Israeli soldiers were also hurt by the Palestinians.

Mr Sharon has also unilaterally inserted another condition – seen by many as wholly unrealistic – by demanding a further seven days of total quiet after truce talks between Mr Peres and Mr Arafat. Only then would he move to implement the Mitchell report, the blueprint for returning to peace negotiations, which contains no mention of a seven-day period. A question mark hangs over whether the Israeli Prime Minister wants to go that far; it would require him to freeze entirely the building of illegal settlements, an enterprise that his government continues to support.

Israel's raids on Palestinian towns in the past week have attracted protests from the European Union and others, notably Britain. A spokesman for the Foreign Office responded to the creation of the closed military zone by saying there was "concern about any measures that reinforce the closure of Palestinian areas". Although the closed zones were not unexpected here – the Israeli army drew up the plans weeks ago – they caused fury among the Palestinians.

It "harms thousands of Palestinians and kills the Oslo peace deals", said Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian Information Minister, referring to the 1993 interim Israel-Palestinian peace accords.

A statement from the Palestine Media Centre, a mouthpiece for the Palestinian Authority, said it was a "dangerous development", which "shall have grave consequences. The excuses that Israel is using to justify this dangerous and racist plan are simply smoke screens [which it is using] to cover its agenda to effectively cleanse these areas of its Palestinian residents and annex them to Israel proper."

Those in Washington and Brussels pressing Israel and the Palestinians to end their conflict, to allow the world to deal with its sudden crisis will have received small comfort from Mr Sharon's latest comments on peace. He told The Jerusalem Post that he would never reach a peace deal with the Palestinians in which Israel did not keep Greater Jeru-salem, a large part of the Jordan Valley and areas of the western West Bank.