Syria hears Israeli Arab plea for a real peace

Confronted by what he regards as an Israeli government hell-bent on burying the "peace process", President Assad of Syria today takes the dramatic step of welcoming at least 50 Israeli Arabs to Damascus, seven of them members of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. They were due to fly into Syria late last night on their Israeli passports for meetings with the president and with his foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa.

A delegation of Israeli Arabs briefly visited Syria in 1995 to express their condolences to President Assad after the death of his son, Basil, in a road accident, but today's visit allows the Syrian leader to show that he has political allies inside Israel itself - at the very moment when the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is being denounced in the Damascus press as a warmonger who seeks only to destroy the foundations of the "peace process".

The Israeli Arabs, who are flying via Cairo since no direct air links exist between Syria and Israel, include members of the Israeli Labour Party, Meretz, the Democratic Front for Equality and Peace, a number of journalists and more than a dozen members of Islamist movements.

"They are against Netanyahu's policy in the occupied territories," Mr Mohamed Salman, the Syrian information minister, said yesterday. "They want to achieve a real peace with the Arab states and they asked to visit Syria to express their support for Syria's position and to tell the world that people can co-exist."

Syria regards Mr Netanyahu's refusal to withdraw Israeli troops from the occupied Golan Heights as an Israeli betrayal of the 1991 Madrid peace con- ference which was specifically founded on UN Security Council resolution 242 - which called for total Israeli withdrawal from all occupied lands in return for security of all states in the area.

In the past, Israel's Arabs were regarded by the rest of the Arab world with suspicion and sometimes outright hostility. For 18 years, they lived under harsh Israeli military law while being regarded elsewhere in the Middle East as little more than agents of Israel. That Syria's strict Baathist regime should welcome them now emphasises how their role has changed - and how important they have become to President Assad.

"The Palestinians who stuck to their land in 1948 continued their struggle and sacrificed thousands of martyrs to the national cause. That's why we in Syria open our doors to them, contrary to the former situation," Mr Salman said.

Indeed, little could the Israeli Arabs - hitherto heretics in the Palestinian world - ever have imagined checking in at the Damascus Meridien hotel for meetings with Israel's fiercest Arab critic and his foreign minister. Over four days they will also be visiting the tomb of Salahadin al-Ayoubi and the grave of Yousef el-Azmi, who led the doomed Syrian cavalry charge against French tanks at the battle of the Maysaloun Pass in 1920.

One can only imagine their thoughts when they are taken to the Najhah Martyrs' Cemetery in Damascus where thousands of Syrian military victims of the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars lie - all killed by the country whose passport the visitors now carry.

n Beirut - The killing of four more civilians, including a mother and her two children aged four and 10, brought the south Lebanon "ceasefire" to near-total collapse yesterday, as the Hizbollah fired at least 40 Katyusha rockets at Israel's occupation zone in revenge for the killing of five of their members by Israeli troops earlier in the week.

In the space of 12 hours yesterday, a militiaman in Israel's South Lebanon Army was killed by a Hizbollah bomb, while Israel's return fire killed a farmer. The mother and her children died in the bomb ambush in Merkaba. .

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