Arabs call for halt to Israel contacts
By CNN Cairo Bureau Chief Ben Wedeman
CAIRO, Egypt (CNN) -- Nine Arab foreign ministers have endorsed a call to suspend political contacts with Israel until "aggression" and "occupation" by the Israelis stops.
Among the group were the foreign ministers of Jordan and Egypt, the only two Arab countries that have signed a peace treaty with Israel and authors of an initiative to halt fighting and start peace talks.
The White House said Saturday it needed to review the "specific language" of the recommendation before commenting, but added that no matter what the document contained, severing Arab-Israeli ties would not help bring about an end to the violence in the region.
"There needs to be as much dialogue as possible," a senior administration official told CNN.
The official, who had not seen the "exact language" yet, said he believes the committee recommendation may be "less" significant than it appears, adding that there have been "things very close to (this) before" from the Arab League.
The recommendation came against a background of increasing Arab anger after a Palestinian suicide bombing attack set off a round of retaliatory air strikes by the Israelis Friday.
The tone was set by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat , who denounced the air raids and accused Israel of waging a war to destroy the Palestinian Authority.
The Arab ministers also issued a call for an international force to act as a buffer between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
"I believe it is the responsibility of the international community to protect the civilian population from the bombardment by fighter bombers and by tanks and rockets," said Arab League Secretary-General Amre Moussa of Egypt.
"This is a major responsibility. Otherwise, the whole international system will be a joke."
The ministers also sought a more active role from the United States in helping to resuscitate the battered peace process.
Their pleas came at a time when many Arabs view the United States -- Israel's biggest backer and a principal supplier of military hardware -- as party to the conflict.
Though Saturday's recommendation is not binding on the 22 members of the Arab League, Arab diplomatic sources told CNN they were certain, given the mood here, it will be adopted by each of the members.
The move represents a significant change in the Arab position. Earlier, they had recommended that contacts be frozen, but an exception had been made for those Arab countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel: Egypt, Jordan and Mauritania. Saturday's call makes no such exception.
"OK, let's say they sever relations," said Raanan Gissin, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "And then what? And then what?"
The Arab countries ought to be working to convince Arafat to halt the violence and restart the negotiations, Gissin told CNN.
"They're giving [the Palestinians an] incentive to continue with this kind of horrendous attack," he said.
"We're trying to exercise restraint as much as possible, offering an open hand for peace. What we get in return is not just a cold shoulder, but a deliberate intent to intensify the violence."
A spokeswoman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry said the ministry was checking with diplomatic sources to find out whether the Arab League's recommendation was a final draft.
She suggested it might not be and said the recommendation could simply be rhetoric.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov called on the international community to "break this spiral."
The latest violence included the killings Saturday of at least three Palestinians, Palestinian sources said. But the Israelis said one of the men was only wounded.
Israeli troops shot and killed a Palestinian Saturday in the West Bank town of Nablus after a funeral procession for 11 Palestinians killed Friday in Israeli air strikes, according to the Palestine Red Crescent Society.
Israeli helicopter gunships were in action Saturday morning over the West Bank towns of Jenin and Tulkarem, striking at Palestinian security headquarters in both towns.
In Tulkarem, the Palestine Red Crescent Society said as many as 30 people -- many of them civilians -- were wounded, though apparently most of the injuries were not serious.
A statement from the IDF said the Israeli Air Force "attacked terrorist targets in the area."
A Palestinian policeman was shot and killed in Jenin overnight, the IDF said. Israeli military said gunfire erupted after two Palestinian policemen approached two Israeli soldiers.
An Israeli soldier "shot towards the Palestinian policemen, a third Palestinian policeman neared the car and opened fire towards the Force. Soldiers then threw a grenade toward the policemen," said an IDF statement.
And the Palestinian Red Crescent said a farmer was shot dead near Karni Crossing in Gaza. But the IDF said the Palestinian -- armed with a Kalashnikov -- did not heed a warning shot, so they shot him in the leg. He did not die, the spokesman said.
Saturday's attacks followed in the wake of air strikes Friday night, when Israeli F-16 fighter jets hit Palestinian targets in the West Bank and Gaza.
Those strikes came after a suicide bomber killed five Israelis as well as the bomber and left 100 wounded at a shopping mall in Netanya.
In Nablus, they struck at a Palestinian police post, killing 11 policemen. In Gaza, they struck at a Coast Guard station and another Palestinian security headquarters.
Funerals for the 11 Palestinian policemen were held Saturday in Nablus. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets, chanting "Revenge! Revenge! A million of us will march to Jerusalem!"
After the funerals, one Palestinian man was killed on the West Bank after clashes with Israeli troops.
"This is part of their [the Israelis'] continued plan to undermine the peace process and to undermine the Palestinian Authority," said Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erakat.
He blamed the Bush administration's "non-risk policies" for the deteriorating situation.
"What we need to do is to revive hope, to revive the peace process and to bring the parties back to the negotiating table immediately," he told CNN.
"Israel has to do whatever it can in order to protect the life of its citizens," said Danny Naveh, Israel's minister of state.
"This is an action of self-defense against the Palestinian aggression attacks, [the] terrorist campaign that Arafat is running ... Arafat is not interested in peace. He is not interested in negotiations. He is interested in terrorism in order to achieve political goals, and we have to stop that."
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called Friday for an immediate and unconditional end to the violence.
Former Sen. George Mitchell, head of a fact-finding commission into the conflict, said distrust on both sides is a major obstacle.
"Neither believes in the other, and this is not just the political leaders, this is the public on both sides. There has been a complete shattering of confidence in the interest of the other in trying to reach a long-term, meaningful resolution."
Russian President Vladimir Putin told Sharon by phone Saturday that Israel and the Palestinians must take immediate steps to relieve the tensions, but added that "the clearly improper use of Israeli military force is impossible to justify or to explain."
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