Straw steps into the cauldron to visit blockaded Arafat

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The Independent Online

Jack Straw will venture into the seething core of the Israel-Palestinian conflict tonight by visiting Yasser Arafat, who is confined in his West Bank headquarters by Israeli tanks.

At their meeting in Ramallah, the Foreign Secretary will apply more pressure on the Palestinian leader to arrest and jail militants, and dismantle extremist Islamic nationalist organisations, notably Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have repeatedly sent suicide bombers into Israel.

Foreign Office sources said he would be taking an equally "tough message" in a meeting, scheduled for today, with Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, on the need to show restraint after a new spurt of violence. In the past three days, Palestinian gunmen have killed two soldiers; guerrillas have fired a new Palestinian home-made missile into Israel; and Israeli F-16s have launched three waves of missile strikes on Gaza, injuring scores of people.

An Israeli armoured force rumbled into a Palestinian town last night as Israel threatened to set up "security zones" in Palestinian areas to put Israeli cities out of range of a new rocket. There were no reports of casualties in what residents said was an incursion of 800 metres by at least five tanks, three jeeps and a bulldozer into the town of Deir al-Balah in central Gaza.

Mr Straw will push Mr Sharon to end a military blockade of Mr Arafat's headquarters. A Foreign Office source said: "It is not practical to place restrictions on Yasser Arafat and limit the ability of the Palestinian police to operate yet expect them to be successful in efforts against terrorists."

¿ A plan by Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, and the Palestinian parliament speaker to halt the bloodshed was dismissed by Mr Sharon and the Defence Minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer.