US asserts Israel's right to self-defence after attack on Syria 'camp'

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The Independent Online

The US refused to criticise Israel yesterday for its attack on an alleged training camp of the Islamic Jihad group inside Syria. It also reiterated that an end to terrorism was the essential first step towards restarting the Middle East peace process.

Questioned at a joint press conference with the visiting Kenyan President, Mwai Kibaki, President George Bush said he had spoken to Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, after the raid, and assured him that Israel had a right to self-defence, "that Israel must not feel constrained in terms of defending the homeland". Only in the subsequent sentence did he stress the importance of Israel avoiding actions that increased tension in the region.

Though the President and his spokesman chose their words very carefully, they placed the attack on targets in Syria in the context of Saturday's suicide bombing at a restaurant in the Israeli city of Haifa, in which 19 people died.

Mr Bush pointedly noted that US Middle East policy was unchanged, with its demand that the Palestinian Authority under Yasser Arafat first dismantle the radical groups which carry out attacks on Israel. Bush administration officials said Israel had not informed Washington in advance of its retaliatory strike nor indicated whether it intended any move against Mr Arafat to remove him from his West Bank headquarters. The Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, warned yesterday that the expulsion of Mr Arafat would be a "terrorist act".

Even though Islamic Jihad, which said it carried out the Haifa bombing, denies it has camps in Syria, Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, supported the Israeli contention that the target was a "terrorist camp". And in language which appears to extend to Israel the right to launch the sort of pre-emptive attacks contained in Mr Bush's post-11 September strategic doctrine, the spokesman noted how Washington had "repeatedly" warned Syria that it must "stop offering shelter to terrorist organisations". The implication is that the US will use its veto to block the Security Council resolution Syria is seeking to protest against the Israeli action, unless the text specifically and explicitly condemns all terrorist actions against the Jewish state.

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