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Arafat: Militants must back down

| Thursday, Aug. 28, 2003

JERUSALEM -- Palestinian President Yasser Arafat called on militant groups Wednesday to reinstate a shattered cease-fire and pledged to crack down on armed Palestinian factions -- but only if Israel stopped hunting down their leaders.

The Israeli government immediately ridiculed Arafat's offer as a sham, and even a senior official of the radical Muslim organization Hamas warned the Palestinian Authority chairman to back off from challenging the various militia groups.

Still, it was Arafat's first public call for action following the spiraling violence of the past two weeks, which saw a Palestinian suicide bomber kill 21 passengers on a bus and Israeli attack helicopters launch missile strikes on Hamas operatives.

From his battered compound in Ramallah, Arafat urged "all political factions and forces to recommit themselves to national unity and solidarity to protect our people and to commit themselves to the 'hudna'" -- the Arabic term for the temporary truce that the main militant organizations declared June 29 and formally abandoned last Thursday.

Arafat also called on the United States to intervene in order to get the peace plan known as the "road map" back on track, an ambitious initiative that envisions an independent Palestinian state but that has yet to get far off the ground. So far, neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian side has been willing to make the concessions demanded by the plan.

Arafat's public statement echoed similar calls by senior Palestinian officials for a restoration of the hudna. His remarks provided a rare show of accord, at least outwardly, between him and the government of his appointed prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, whose authority Arafat has been accused of trying to undermine.

Abbas is perceived as a moderate willing to try to rein in militants, but analysts say that he has been continually thwarted by Arafat's refusal to relinquish control of most of the Palestinian security forces. In recent days, Arafat has tried to shore up his power base by naming loyalists to security-related positions that would effectively sideline Abbas' own minister for security, Mohammed Dahlan.

Under increasing heat from the power struggle with Arafat and from militant factions that view his diplomatic engagement of Israel as treasonous, Abbas convened a meeting of his cabinet in Gaza City yesterday to discuss the recent turn of events. Aides said he did not meet with leaders of militant groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Abbas is scheduled to present a report of his first 100 days in office to Palestinian legislators next Monday, a gathering that some fear could turn into a public dressing-down of the prime minister. Many on the Palestinian street have demanded his resignation, saying that his cooperation with Israel and the United States has earned nothing in return but Israeli raids on the West Bank and "targeted killings" in Gaza.

Abdulaziz Rantisi, the leader of Hamas, warned that any exhortation from the Palestinian Authority, whether by Arafat or Abbas, to clamp down on militant groups was "a very dangerous call."

The Israeli government also poured scorn on Arafat's comments and declared that it would continue pursuing extremists because the Palestinians had refused to, even after last week's suicide bombing in Jerusalem, one of the worst such attacks in nearly three years of conflict.

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