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Palestinians cool to Sharon offer

By Atul Aneja

MANAMA, DEC. 17. Palestinian authorities have given a lukewarm response to the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon's remarks that both sides, next year, should seize a historic opportunity to achieve lasting peace.

In an address in the town of Herzliya, Mr. Sharon said Israel was ready to co-ordinate its pullout from Gaza with a new Palestinian leadership, following the death of Yasser Arafat in November.

Addressing Palestinians, he said, "We have no desire to rule over you. It is clear that in a permanent peace accord, we will not be in Gaza." He gave no indication of budging from his stance on the occupation of the West Bank, where Israelis have settled in large numbers. Mr. Sharon has, in the past, repeatedly stated his intent to pullout Israeli forces and settlers from Gaza.

His plan envisages Israeli control over the area's airspace, waters and international border after the withdrawal has been completed.

Nothing new

In response to Mr. Sharon's address, the Palestinian Cabinet Minister, Saeb Erekat, said the remarks contained nothing new. The Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, also reacted coolly to it. Reuters news agency quoted him as saying the Palestinians could never discuss anything less than a state in all of the West Bank and Gaza.

He later said the two sides could co-ordinate the disengagement plan if it was part of the U.S.-backed roadmap for peace.

Mr. Sharon has reportedly sent a letter to the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, welcoming plans for a peace conference in London.

Israeli officials have suggested that the conference would be about Palestinian reforms and was unlikely to focus on final status issues of borders, Palestinian refugees, Jewish settlements and Jerusalem.

Notwithstanding Mr. Sharon's conciliatory tone, there has been no let up in Israeli attacks on Palestinians.

Violence continues

Five Palestinians have been killed and others injured in an Israeli army raid in the occupied Gaza Strip.

Around 25 tanks and armoured vehicles have been involved in the incursion in the Khan Younis refugee camp in southern Gaza.

The Israeli military said that the purpose of the attack was to reduce Palestinian mortar and rocket attacks on nearby Jewish settlements.

Eleven Israeli soldiers earlier received minor injuries in a mortar attack on the Netzer Hazani settlement.

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