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Christopher Rejects Arafat Plea to Enforce Timetable

By David Hoffman and John M. Goshko
The Washington Post


New violence broke out Monday night on the West Bank as Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization sought to resolve disagreements over Israel's military withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and Jericho, which is scheduled to begin next Monday.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher met in Amman with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and gently rejected his plea for the United States to press Israel to keep its commitment to begin withdrawing from Gaza and Jericho on Dec. 13, as called for in the Israeli-PLO accord signed Sept. 13.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said there is "a tacit understanding" with the Palestinians that an agreement on the pullout does not have to be signed in the next week, and he pledged that the timetable for completing the withdrawal by April 13 will be met.

These differing views appear to suggest that both Israel and the PLO are preparing for a week of intensive jockeying before Monday. Rabin and Arafat may meet in the days ahead, probably in Cairo, before a final agreement is reached, and some Israeli officials have said that a symbolic military pullout could take place even before the full agreement is sealed.

But Rabin has come under sharp criticism this week as a wave of violence engulfed Jewish settlers and Palestinians. Monday night, an Israeli father and son were killed and three other sons in the family were wounded as gunmen drove by in a car and fired at their minivan with automatic weapons near Hebron in the West Bank. Settlers opposed to the peace accord gathered for demonstrations in Jerusalem and Hebron, throwing stones at Arab cars.

However, U.S. officials said that in a two-hour meeting at the American Embassy in Amman, Jordan, Arafat told Christopher that he is under heavy pressure from Palestinian militants and the PLO Executive Committee and believes that much of the strain would be eased if the Israeli withdrawal begins on time.

Christopher promised to convey Arafat's concern to Rabin, and he said the United States is looking into the possibility of providing some non-lethal aid such as surplus vehicles to the embryonic Palestinian police force that is supposed to replace Israeli troops when they depart.

But he also made clear that the U.S. role in helping the Palestinians will be confined primarily to economic assistance and that the Clinton administration believes the PLO and Israel should work out their future security relationships by themselves.

Meanwhile, Israel announced that Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Arafat will meet in Grenada, Spain, on Wednesday. Both will be attending a conference sponsored by the U.N. Education, Scientific and Cultural Orgnization. The meeting is expected to prepare for a possible Rabin-Arafat session to take up some of the remaining obstacles in the Israeli-PLO talks.

The chief disagreements are over security arrangements and how large the Jericho zone should be. Both Israel and the Palestinians are preparing to submit draft agreements to each other at talks in Cairo on Wednesday. According to Israeli officials here, Israel has agreed to release a large number of Palestinian prisoners when the agreement takes affect. But there are still unresolved problems over how Israeli settlers will be protected, especially on roads that take them through Arab population centers in Gaza.

The roads have become a battleground in recent days. Last week, two Israelis were killed in a drive-by assault by Palestinian militants firing automatic weapons. Another Israeli was killed at a bus stop on Sunday.

Monday night, the father and son were gunned down in their disabled minivan, which was parked near Hebron. The predominantly Arab city has been the scene of fierce clashes between Jewish settlers and Palestinians in the last few days during which one Arab was fatally shot by a settler. Police Monday charged the settler with murder and two others with being accomplices.

Meanwhile, Israeli undercover troops shot and killed a Palestinian Monday who was accused of being a member of the Islamic movement Hamas suspected of participating in the drive-by assault last week.

Arafat, talking briefly with reporters after his meeting with Christopher, was asked whether he was willing to agree to a delay beyond next Monday. He replied: "You have to ask Mr. Rabin to be flexible. He is occupying my land, and he has to withdraw. We are hoping he will be flexible so we can find a solution and start the withdrawal on time."

"The Israelis and the PLO are the best ones to interpret the agreement," Christopher added. "It is quite important that no one else try to interpose themselves. But I have heard the urgency that Chairman Arafat feels, and when I see Prime Minister Rabin I will pass on Chairman Arafat's concern."

A senior U.S. official accompanying Christopher said that any aid the United States might provide to the Palestinian police force would be strictly non-lethal. He said the administration is thinking of donating some surplus Defense Department vehicles, but added that it would be necessary first to check the idea with Congress.