Palestinians bow to pressure over ceasefire plan

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The Independent Online

The Palestinians last night bowed to intense pressure from the United States and Israel and gave a qualified acceptance to a US plan to secure the incomplete Middle East ceasefire after more than eight months of bloodshed.

Palestinian officials reportedly said that they had reservations about one element of the plan, drawn up by the director of the CIA, George Tenet, and that more work was needed on another aspect, but that an agreement had been made to accept the proposals.

The decision came after a meeting between Yasser Arafat and Mr Tenet, who earlier postponed plans to leave the region in order to go to the West Bank town of Ramallah to see the Palestinian leader.

The Palestinians appear to have accepted an Israeli demand that they should arrest and jail a group of Islamic militants ­ a daunting and risky task for Mr Arafat and his sprawling security apparatus as it is certain to cause anger on the streets and accusations that ­ after an intifada in which more than 460 Palestinians have been killed, mostly by the Israeli army ­ he was treacherously rounding up his own citizens at the behest of the Israeli security services.

It appears their main reservations now concern an Israeli demand to create a "buffer zone" between Israel and the occupied territories.

It also looks as if Mr Arafat has accepted the agreement without a commitment from the Israelis that they will begin to lift their punitive siege of the occupied territories by a specified date. If there is now a successful ceasefire ­ and that remains in doubt ­ and if there is no progress on this front, the peace plans are likely to falter.

Wrangling over nailing down the current, incomplete ceasefire had dragged into the night after the Palestinians rejected two deadlines for signing the deal, and continued to balk at several conditions. The main obstacles in the way of the deal were the rejection by Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, of Palestinian demands for a timeline for ending the military blockades, which have sent Palestinian unemployment rocketing to more than 40 per cent, and the unwillingness of the Palestinians to arrest a group of 16 Islamic militants from the Islamic-nationalist Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad suspected of being involved in bombing attacks against Israeli civilians.

Israel said earlier it had accepted the proposals ­ which were weighted in its favour ­ although unenthusiastically, while the Palestinians were expressing deep misgivings.

Some Western sources said the Americans had pressured Mr Arafat by indicating that, if he rejected the deal, they would give a green light to Mr Sharon to escalate the conflict, possibly toppling the Palestinian Authority and throwing out Mr Arafat. Others denied this. "It has not been put in such terms," said one source. "The Palestinians are claiming that there have been ultimatums, but my understanding is that the Americans are only saying that this is the best deal they can get."

The Palestinians had pressed for the ceasefire proposals to be linked to a promise of progress concerning recommendations made by the Mitchell Commission, which is supposed to be the basis for returning both sides to the negotiating table. The Israelis are insisting on an eight-week "cooling-off" period before addressing the diplomatic issues.

Chief among these is a call for a complete freeze by Israel of the construction of Jewish settlements. To Arab dismay, the ceasefire agreement promoted by Mr Tenet deals with security issues and contains no mention of the settlements.