Palestinian extremists protest at Geneva Accords peace plan

Thousands of Palestinian militants staged protests yesterday against the ground-breaking Geneva Accords initiative developed by Palestinian and Israeli moderates.

The proposals, which emerged from two years of secret talks between moderate Palestinian and Israeli public figures, were denounced by Palestinian militants as well as Israel's right-wing Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon.

Three million copies of the peace plan are to be presented to the former US presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and to Nelson Mandela at a ceremony in Geneva in 10 days. The proposals will then be distributed among Palestinian and Israeli families in Israel and the occupied territories.

Brokered between leading Palestinian and Israeli opposition figures, the Geneva Accords are intended to break the stalemate on peace since Mr Sharon came to power.

The initiative proposes to end the three-year intifada by removing Jewish settlements in Israeli-occupied Gaza and the West Bank to make way for a Palestinian state. The accord grew out of dismay with lack of progress on the US road-map for peace, and is intended to show negotiations are possible between the two sides.

Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, is sponsoring the initiative after playing a key role in its development. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, have also given cautious praise to the peace plan.

But President George Bush seemed to go out of his way to avoid mentioning the Accords in his foreign policy speech in London on Wednesday.

Mr Sharon's office has been particularly scornful of the peace plan. One of his central policies while in power has been to wreck the Oslo peace process, another objective he shares with Palestinian militants.

His office refused to accept a copy of the draft agreement and the government has tried to prevent Israeli radio from broadcasting advertisements endorsing the proposals. Mr Sharon has accused the Geneva architects of undermining democracy.

Yasser Arafat has welcomed the initiative, in principle, as a possible way of out the Middle East deadlock.

Yesterday it was the turn of Palestinian extremists to denounce the process. "Foreign occupation is destined to be erased, as is the monstrous Geneva Agreement," said Mohammed al-Hindi, the chief of Islamic Jihad, during a rally called to denounce the document.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad plan to step up protests by demonstrating outside the homes of the peace plan's Palestinian signatories - the former cabinet minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Minister for Prisoner Affairs, Hisham Abdel-Razek, and members of the Fatah movement.

Nizar Rayan, political leader of Hamas, told a cheering crowd of thousands: "They must be punished and prosecuted. Who gave them the right to speak on behalf of our people inside closed restaurants and air-conditioned hotel rooms? We will continue to condemn it [Geneva] and collect people's signatures and take to the streets until we bring it down just like Oslo."

With the crowd chanting "the Geneva Agreement is a betrayal", speakers attacked the calls for greater security co-ordination between Palestinians and Israel to curb militant groups, which is also a requirement of the road-map proposal to achieve peace in the Middle East.