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Palestinians angry with Sharon ultimatum
( 2003-11-28 16:40) (Agencies)

Palestinians reacted with anger at Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's warning that Israel might seize land if peace negotiations fail, though Sharon also said Israel must give up territory for peace.

"You do not have unlimited time," Sharon told a news conference on Thursday, addressing the Palestinians, adding that if he feels the Palestinians are not serious about negotiating a peace deal, he may take unilateral steps. "Maybe (the Palestinians) can get things now that they won't be able to get then," he said.

The Palestinians, who claim all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip for a state, responded to Sharon's warning of impatience and annexation with a sharp rebuke.

"This is an unprecedented, arrogant statement. It is rude and it lacks any vision," Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said. "He should declare that he is committed to the 'road map' and implement all the Israeli commitments that are in this map," referring to a U.S.-backed peace plan.

Sharon would not define "unilateral steps," saying only that they would make Israeli life easier. The term is understood to mean he might order people to withdraw from some isolated Jewish settlements.

Netzarim, a heavily guarded enclave in Gaza, would be at the top of most lists for evacuation, and Sharon indicated a shift about the settlement. Up to now, Sharon has said it is essential for Israel's security because it overlooks Gaza's port. But at the news conference, he refused to give any guarantees.

"I won't give any promise to any person about any place," Sharon said. "It is clear that in the future we will not be in all the places we are now," conceding that in a peace deal, Israel would have to give up territory in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Sharon's talk about possible concessions was aimed at an increasingly impatient gallery of critics, ranging from U.S. officials to bickering coalition partners to ordinary Israelis despondent over worsening security and living standards.

Sharon said Thursday he remained committed to the road map, which both sides accepted in principle in June, although Israel attached 14 reservations. The plan calls for a Palestinian state by 2005.

But Sharon made clear that he will not fully abide by a road map requirement that Israel dismantle the scores of West Bank settlement outposts, many of them no more than a few trailer homes, which were established in recent years. He said some outposts have "supreme security value" and that "what is necessary will remain" a statement Palestinians called a blatant violation of the plan.

Sharon has also ignored the road map's call for a freeze on construction in the 150 veteran Jewish settlements where about 220,000 settlers live.

The Palestinians, for their part, have ignored the requirement that they dismantle the militant groups that have killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and shootings in three years of violence.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia's goal appears to be ending the violence and then putting pressure on Sharon to come up with a concrete proposal. The road map does not spell out details such as the exact borders of a Palestinian state.

Palestinian groups are meeting in Cairo for truce talks next week, and there are expectations they might announce readiness to halt attacks.

On Thursday, Qureia said senior Israeli and Palestinian officials will meet next week to prepare for a summit between him and Sharon, presumably after the Cairo talks. Qureia has so far balked at such a meeting, asking for assurances that it would yield results. Sharon has refused to consider preconditions.

The Palestinians are also demanding Israel stop building its security barrier, a system of fences, walls and trenches which is planned to stretch along a snaking path of some 360 miles. It will dig deep into the West Bank in several areas to incorporate large Jewish settlements into the "Israeli" side.

On Thursday, Sharon said construction of the barrier would continue and accused the Palestinian government of failing to take "even the smallest step ... to stop terrorism." Israel says the barrier is necessary to keep Palestinian suicide bombers out.

The comments came a week after U.S. President Bush criticized Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, and amid growing domestic criticism.

"Ever widening circles of the Israeli public are feeling a growing sense of urgency," wrote the Haaretz newspaper in an editorial. "As has been his wont ever since he was elected, (Sharon) is creating another smoke screen."

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