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Sharon rejects Palestinian condition for talks
( 2003-12-01 09:44) (Agencies)

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday rejected his Palestinian counterpart's demand that Israel stop building a separation barrier through the West Bank as a condition for peace talks.

But a U.S. envoy, trying to revive a stalled peace "road map," said he was hopeful a meeting could still be fixed between Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie, and he urged both sides to keep the promises they had already made.

Described by the Israelis as a fence to keep out suicide bombers and by the Palestinians as a wall to annex land, the controversial barrier of concrete and razor wire cuts deep into territory occupied by Israel in 1967.

"I hereby notify you that no condition shall be accepted... regarding the cessation of the fence, dismantling of the fence and other fabrications," Sharon was quoted as saying in the official report on Sunday's cabinet meeting.

Sharon's cabinet chief later met Palestinian officials to prepare for a meeting of the two, but a statement said they had decided "to meet again soon to continue preparations."

Qurie urged the United States to press Israel to halt work on the barrier as he met State Department envoy William Burns.

"We, too, believe in the United States that there is a moment of opportunity before us," Burns said after arriving in Israel from Jordan. "We have no illusions. This is obviously a difficult process."


In the southern Gaza Strip a member of the militant group Islamic Jihad, who also belonged to the Palestinian police force, was killed when his car blew up in Rafah refugee camp, near the border with Egypt.

Palestinian security officials said the explosion, which killed 33-year-old Yusuf Abu Matar, appeared to be an act of sabotage and Islamic Jihad threatened to retaliate.

An Islamic Jihad leader, Khaled al-Batesh, accused Israel of staging the attack in an effort to foil a planned meeting of Palestinian groups in Cairo this week, at which they plan to discuss a new truce.

"Such crimes shouldn't pass without reaction," al-Batesh told Reuters.

The Israeli army had no official comment, but a military source denied Israeli forces were in the Rafah area at the time of the explosion.

Rafah has been a flashpoint of violence in a three-year Palestinian uprising.

Israel has often killed militant leaders in targeted strikes in Gaza, but has held off on such attacks since late October amid U.S.-brokered efforts to restart peace talks.

The U.S.-backed road map peace plan has been stalled since a one-sided truce by Palestinian militants collapsed in August.

Burns, on a visit that has signaled renewed U.S. interest, said Israel should remove settler outposts while the Palestinians deal with militant groups under the peace plan that envisages a Palestinian state by 2005.

Sharon has said he is committed to the plan, but that if it fails Israel could unilaterally set borders for a Palestinian state then leave isolated Jewish settlements.

Chanting "No to treason," Palestinians forced Palestinian delegates headed for a ceremony in Geneva to launch a symbolic peace accord with Israel to run a gauntlet of rage in Gaza.

Like the road map, the Geneva plan envisages a Palestinian state, but it goes further by mandating the removal of most Jewish settlements and splitting Jerusalem into two capitals.

The protesters accused the delegates of selling out millions of Palestinian refugees who claim a right of return to what is now Israel. The plan is the brainchild of Israeli opposition doves and some Palestinian officials.

The outcry nearly kept several key members of President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement from making the trip but they later went at his urging, a Fatah official said.

Sharon, who spearheaded the building of settlements, has called the Geneva plan a danger to Israel. But Israeli television stations reported that opinion polls show public support in Israel for the plan has grown in the past month.

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