Sharon applauds EU demand for action by Arafat

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The Independent Online

The Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, claimed another victory in his campaign to isolate Yasser Arafat yesterday after the European Union issued a strongly worded statement demanding that the Palestinian leader dismantle the "terrorist networks" of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Helped by the global outrage caused by recent Palestinian suicide bombings, Mr Sharon has been working steadily to garner international support. Although he insists he wants a ceasefire, his main strategy has been to use military force to bludgeon the Palestinians into ending their uprising without an agreement from Israel over their primary demand – withdrawal from the occupied territories.

Yesterday, after a breakfast meeting with the EU's security chief, Javier Solana, Mr Sharon issued a triumphant press release expressing his "satisfaction" with the statement issued by European foreign ministers on Monday.

The statement was seen by many in Israel – which generally regards the EU as excessively critical of its treatment of the Palestinians – as a sign that the Europeans are becoming more sympathetic and moving closer to the pro-Israeli stance of the United States.

The right-wing Jerusalem Post called it "unprecedented".However, Mr Sharon's announcement neglected to mention that the EU statement also expressed support for a "viable and democratic Palestinian state" and called for a freeze on the building of settlements and an end to "extra-judicial executions" of Palestinians.

It also called for an end to the Israeli presence in the occupied areas – which Mr Sharon's strategy seems designed to perpetuate.

Israel maintained military pressure on the Palestinians yesterday by shooting dead two Arabs. The army said the men failed to stop at a West Bank roadblock; the Palestinians said they were labourers who worked illegally in Israel.

Although the incident raises disturbing questions, it is unlikely that Israel will be under significant pressure to answer them. There were only half-hearted international protests over the deaths of two Palestinian children hit by shrapnel from a helicopter missile in a bungled assassination attempt in Hebron on Monday. Israel expressed regret and said the intended target was Mohammed Ayoub Sidr, an Islamic Jihad activist.

Late last night Israeli helicopters firing missiles killed two men in a residential area near a refugee camp, which overlooks a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip. A third man was killed when the aircraft and Israeli ground forces opened fire. Twelve people were wounded.

Israel claimed the dead were a terrorist squad who had opened fire on a military post. The Palestinians said it was an Israeli "ambush."