Talks deadlocked as Sharon demands 'war' on militants

Hamas leaders reject 'surrender', while Israel says a ceasefire would not be enough to restart negotiations
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The Independent Online

Talks to persuade Palestinian militants to agree to a six-month ceasefire ended inconclusively last night, with Egyptian mediators returning home without success.

As the talks appeared to reach a stalemate, Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister said in a speech to the Knesset, Israel's parliament, that a ceasefire would not be enough and demanded "a comprehensive, ongoing war by the new Palestinian government" against the militants.

New hopes for the peace process after the Aqaba summit have all but evaporated in a new round of violence between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas that has seen more than 60 people killed in a little over a week.

Unless the violence stops, there are fears the road-map peace plan, personally backed by President George Bush, may go the way of previous attempts to make peace.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) was still holding out hope of getting Hamas and the other militant groups to agree to a ceasefire last night. Abu Mazen, the Palestinian Prime Minister, was due to hold talks with militant leaders in Gaza after mediators sent by the Egyptian government left. The Egyptians offered to resume the talks in Cairo this week, or to return in 24 hours.

The Egyptians have been pushing Hamas to agree to a six-month ceasefire. In return, the Israeli army would gradually withdraw from the northern Gaza Strip, and the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

Comments from some Hamas leaders yesterday threw cold water on any future talks. "Ceasefire means surrender to occupation," Ismail abu Shanab, a senior figure in Hamas, said. "Now is not a time for truce. It is time for solidarity and standing united against Israeli attacks on our people."

Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, Hamas's spiritual leader, was less vitriolic. "We have listened to the ideas and the proposals and we are studying them in order to respond," he said.

Mr Sharon appeared to write off the peace process as long as militant attacks continued. "We cannot achieve a political arrangement and certainly not a peace deal, when terror runs rampant," he said.

But Silvan Shalom, the Israeli Foreign Minister, said unequivocally that Israel would not accept a temporary ceasefire, and Mr Sharon appeared to back that up in his speech. "For me, peace means full security for the citizens of Israel. Not declarations, not talk," Mr Shalom said.

Mr Sharon's demand that the PA takes on the militants would put Abu Mazen in a very difficult position. There is a deep reluctance in Palestinian society, and within the PA's security forces, to take on the militants. Many in the security forces have relatives who are among the militants and some Palestinians fear a confrontation could lead to civil war.

The main sticking point in yesterday's talks in Gaza appeared to be demands from Hamas for international guarantees that Israel would stop its policy of assassinating the militant group's leaders, in return for a ceasefire. The United States is believed to have been pushing Israel to stop the assassinations, after almost daily attempts last week in which many innocent bystanders were killed.

But Mr Sharon appeared to say yesterday the assassinations would continue, when he vowed that Israel would hunt down the militants "in every place and in every situation". That was a considerable change from Sunday, when Mr Sharon was quoted as telling his Cabinet: "If no one fires on us, we will not return fire, except in cases of ticking bombs."

Mr Sharon was speaking at a debate called by the opposition. Knesset opposition members have publicly accused him of jeopardising the road-map when he ordered the assassination of Abdel-Aziz Rantisi, the most prominent leader of Hamas's political wing, last week at a time when Hamas was talking about resuming the ceasefire talks.

After that assassination attempt failed, Hamas vowed to bomb Israel to "rubble" and launched a sickening suicide bombing in central Jerusalem that left 17 dead.

In the opening speech, Zahava Gal-On, a Knesset member from the left-wing, pro-peace Meretz party, accused Mr Sharon of deceiving the Knesset, the Israeli people and the Americans by falsely claiming to support the road-map for peace.

In response, Mr Sharon claimed his hand had been forced by an attack in which Palestinian militants from three different groups broke into an Israeli army base at the crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel and killed four soldiers. The Israeli government was forced either "to hold back in order not to stop the diplomatic process, or to respond to what was placed upon us", he said.

The Knesset voted in support of Mr Sharon by a narrow majority.