Sharon's demands are 'slap in the face' for EU peace delegation

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The Independent Online

Fresh international efforts to mediate an end to Middle East violence ran into trouble yesterday when Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, refused to drop a demand for a seven-day halt to Palestinian attacks before he will move ahead with the Mitchell peace plan.

His remarks were seen as a slap in the face for a senior European Union delegation, which met the Prime Minister in Israel yesterday to press the need to get on with the plan that was published in the spring but has since been gathering dust.

They were followed by an announcement by the Israeli army that it had killed two armed Palestinians near the Jewish settlement of Dugit in the Gaza Strip. The men were said to have been trying to attack Israeli soldiers or civilians.

European and United Nations diplomats, attempting to restore calm in the region after the loss of about 1,000 lives in slightly more than a year, have long viewed Mr Sharon's seven-day demand as unrealistic and believe a significant reduction in violence should be enough to kickstart the peace plan.

Palestinian officials say the demand overlooks the violence committed daily by the Israeli army or by Jewish settlers, and believe Mr Sharon is using the seven-day condition as a pretext to avoid the Mitchell proposals, not least because they require Israel to stop illegally building settlements.

There are signs that the United States opposes the demand. It is thought the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, might raise this in a policy speech today at the University of Louisville. All he would say yesterday was that Israel and the Palestinians should stick to the terms of the existing ceasefire: "I will not be introducing a new plan .... We have a plan. It's a solid plan. It's called the Mitchell committee report."

Mr Sharon's refusal to budge only deepens the frustrations facing the European delegation, led by Guy Verhofstadt ­ the Prime Minister of Belgium, who holds the EU rotating presidency ­ and including the commission's president, Romano Prodi, and the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana.

The mission had not even set foot in Israel before several rows broke out. An aide to Mr Sharon declared that the Europeans were biased against Israel, while the Israelis were outraged over the screening on Belgian televisionof "The Accused", a BBC Panorama documentary that examines whether Mr Sharon might be tried as a war criminal over the 1982 Sabra and Chatila camp massacres.

The delegation's hopes of softening Mr Sharon's stance faded further when he told them the EU should stop funding Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority because it only spent the money on weapons.

Despite the simmering violence and tough talk, Israel's army pulled out overnight from the areas it had occupied for weeks in the West Bank town of Tulkarem. That left Jenin as the last Palestinian town partly occupied out of six seized last month in response to the assassination by Palestinian militants of the Israeli tourism minister, Rechavam Zeevi.