Arafat Tours Battle-Torn West Bank

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, 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 Gaza Strip.
"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.
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 in peace.
"That is his vision for the region and we will continue working toward that vision," McCormack said without elaborating.
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 and Jerusalem.
Soldiers also killed a Palestinian who opened fire at an army base in the Jordan Valley area of the West Bank, Israeli military sources said.


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