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Sharon Urges Patience, Unity As Fighting in Israel Goes On

By Tracy Wilkinson
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- jerusalem

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, under mounting criticism for failing to halt Palestinian attacks on Israelis, urged a war-weary nation Thursday to be patient, calm and, above all, united as Israel presses ahead with a massive military campaign in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

Sharon also demanded that Palestinians disarm completely, and he announced plans to build buffer zones along Israel’s borders with the West Bank as a way to separate Palestinians and Israelis -- a unilateral action that is not a new idea but will likely further inflame tensions.

Palestinian officials, meanwhile, announced the arrest of three suspects in the October assassination of a right-wing Israeli Cabinet minister. Israel had demanded the Palestinian gunman and his accomplices be captured and prosecuted as a condition for lifting a three-month-old travel ban on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

In what is shaping up to be the deadliest week here in 17 months of conflict, seven more Palestinians and one Israeli Arab were killed by Israeli troops Thursday; two Israeli soldiers were wounded in a Palestinian ambush.

In a bid to rally Israelis, who are increasingly despondent over the seemingly unending strife, Sharon went on national television and promised that he will “not rest” until Palestinian “terrorist organizations” are dismantled and disarmed. Sharon regards Palestinian militias as well as some regular police forces as terrorist groups.

“To those who speak about a collapse, despair and loss of hope, this is not the time to utter words of disaster,” Sharon told citizens who elected him in a landslide a year ago but who are increasingly expressing doubts about his leadership.

“The state of Israel is not collapsing,” he said. “This is the time for demonstrating the unity which is at the core of the character of the Jewish people. This is the time to demonstrate that we are proud to be Israelis and Jews in Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel.”

The right wing is demanding an all-out war on Arafat and his Palestinian Authority, while the left insists that only negotiations and an end to Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip will halt hostilities.

Reaction to Sharon’s comments fell predictably along ideological lines. No one was satisfied, and some were alarmed.

Palestinian officials said they had hoped Sharon would offer a diplomatic initiative, but instead he pledged more war. Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian Cabinet minister, said the buffer zones will not enhance security and will only deepen suffering.

Pointedly avoiding any mention of Arafat by name, Sharon drove home his insistence to refuse any dialogue with the Palestinian leader. But he did appeal directly to the Palestinian people, urging them to choose a new leadership or suffer the consequences.

At his besieged West Bank headquarters in Ramallah, Arafat reiterated a Dec.16 call for a cease-fire. Citing a long list of violated cease-fires, Israelis scoffed at his proposal. After the Dec. 16 call, however, the region entered several of the quietest weeks since the start of the conflict in September 2000.

Sharon repeated his familiar position that he is eager to reach a truce by “talking to those Palestinians that one can talk to,” but he said he will not negotiate under fire.