- BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters)
- Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat toured battle-scarred West Bank cities
Monday just hours after Israel's ruling Likud party voted never to accept
the creation of a Palestinian state.
- Arafat visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem,
site of a five-week Israeli siege, and Jenin, scene of devastation during
a recent Israeli offensive, in his first trip since Israel lifted his confinement
in his Ramallah compound on May 2.
- Arafat's mission to reassert his authority in the battered
West Bank cities began after the right-wing Likud dealt a further blow
to Middle East peace prospects by voting against any future establishment
of a Palestinian state.
- In Jenin, the Palestinian leader predicted a "liberation
of the occupied territories."
- The Likud vote at a heated party convention in Tel Aviv
on Sunday night marked a victory for former Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu
over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a looming battle for the party leadership.
- Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said it showed Israel's
true intentions and would increase Palestinians' frustration in their latest
19-month-old uprising against Israeli occupation.
- European officials also said it would harm the search
for peace and the United States, Israel's strongest ally, reiterated it
supported an eventual Palestinian state.
- In further West Bank violence, Israeli security services
said they killed two Palestinian gunmen in two incidents before dawn Monday.
- ARAFAT THRONGED IN BETHLEHEM
- Arafat, who had been confined to Ramallah for five months
by the Israeli army, flew into Bethlehem in a Jordanian helicopter and
was thronged by supporters as he entered the church built on the spot Christians
revere as Jesus's birthplace.
- His visit took place three days after the standoff between
the Israeli army and Palestinian militants holed up inside the Church of
the Nativity ended with the 39 gunmen going into exile abroad or to the
- "This place will be in our hearts and minds forever,"
he told reporters.
- Ringed by security men, Arafat smiled broadly as people
clasped his face and kissed him on both cheeks.
- A Palestinian pipe and drum band in red berets played
before Arafat went to Manger Square where he inspected the interior of
the 1,700-year-old church.
- Arafat, a Muslim, went on to the nearby St. Catherine's
Roman Catholic church where he was led to a carnation-bedecked altar by
clergymen and took a deep bow.
- "It's good for the people of Bethlehem to have their
president back," said Father Amjad Sabbara, a Catholic priest who
was among those cooped up inside the besieged church.
- "THIS IS JENIN-GRAD"
- Thousands of people waited to greet Arafat in the Jenin
refugee camp, parts of which were flattened by Israeli troops during the
offensive and where a still-undetermined number of civilians were killed
as well as fighters.
- But he went instead to the town hall, where, standing
on a desk in a packed room, he said: "People of Jenin, all the citizens
of Jenin and the refugee camp, this is Jenin-grad" -- a reference
to the World War Two battle of Stalingrad.
- "Your battle has paved the way to the liberation
of the occupied territories," he said.
- Sharon had failed to win U.S. and international support
for his bid to isolate Arafat, whose popularity among his own people soared
during his confinement. Some in Jenin, however, complained about his failure
to carry out any reforms.
- Arafat was also scheduled to visit Nablus, another scene
of fierce fighting during Israel's military campaign that followed a wave
of Palestinian suicide bombings.
- Israeli forces withdrew from Bethlehem Friday, completing
their pullback from Palestinian-ruled cities in the West Bank occupied
during the offensive.
- But Israel's fractious domestic politics stoked new tensions.
- An Arafat aide said Likud's rejection of a Palestinian
state undermined the peace process and the 1993 Oslo accords that had laid
a basis for resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
- "Peace, stability and security will not be achieved
except by the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem
as its capital," Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rdainah said.
- European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said
he regretted the Likud decision.
- "We are all engaged in trying to find peace...And
everybody has recognized that the only way to peace is through a state
(for the Palestinians). It is a pity that internal politics can make this
process more difficult," Solana said in Brussels.
- U.S. National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack
referred to President Bush's vision of Israel and a Palestinian state living
- "That is his vision for the region and we will continue
working toward that vision," McCormack said without elaborating.
- "DANGEROUS FOR ISRAEL"
- Sharon had told assembled party members that Palestinians
must end violence and reform their political structures before he would
allow talk of them establishing a state.
- The party preferred the harder message delivered by Netanyahu,
who vowed: "A state with all the rights of a state, this cannot be,
not under Arafat, nor under another leadership, not today, nor tomorrow."
- Sharon said the vote would complicate diplomatic efforts.
Both sides are considering a U.S. proposal for a conference in the summer
to try to restart the peace process.
- At least 1,349 Palestinians and 474 Israelis have been
killed in the Palestinian uprising since September 2000.
- An Israeli police spokesman said a pistol-wielding Palestinian
was shot dead after wounding a policeman manning a checkpoint between Bethlehem
- Soldiers also killed a Palestinian who opened fire at
an army base in the Jordan Valley area of the West Bank, Israeli military