| Ariel Sharon at the opening session of the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on Monday. (Reuters)
Jerusalem/Gaza, Oct. 20 (Reuters): Prime Minister Ariel Sharon today renewed Israel’s threat to “remove” Yasser Arafat, just hours after Israeli warplanes and helicopters killed two militants and a bystander in air strikes in Gaza.
Despite that, Sharon said in a policy speech that he remained committed to a US-backed West Asian “road map” and even saw a real chance for progress toward a peace settlement with the Palestinians in coming months.
But he pointed the finger at the Palestinian President as the main stumbling block.
“This man is the biggest obstacle to peace and, therefore, Israel is determined to bring about his removal from the political arena,” he said in a speech to parliament, interrupted frequently by heckling from Left-wing and Israeli Arab deputies.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat accused the Right-wing Prime Minister of using his speech to “undermine peace”. “He reiterated his commitment to building walls (in the West Bank) and (Jewish) settlements and to continued use of the most disproportionate force against people who have no navy or air force or army,” he said.
Sharon offered no new initiatives and instead reaffirmed many of his hardline policies, including a decision by his security cabinet last month to eventually remove Arafat from power.
The threat, which did not specify when or how Israel would take action, provoked an international outcry. The US, Israel’s key ally, said it opposed exiling Arafat, and Sharon appeared to back down last week when he said in a newspaper interview that such a move would hurt Israel.
Israel and the US have tried to sideline Arafat, accusing him of fomenting violence in a three-year-old Palestinian uprising for statehood, an allegation he denies. Israeli forces have kept Arafat — the 74-year-old symbol of Palestinian nationalism — penned inside his West Bank headquarters for most of the last two years. Sharon’s speech followed a flurry of Israeli air strikes around Palestinian-ruled Gaza City today. In addition to those killed, at least 23 people were wounded, medics said.
The attacks, the latest in a cycle of tit-for-tat violence that has stalled the US-backed peace plan, came after gunmen killed three soldiers in an ambush in the West Bank yesterday.
In the bloodiest of three air raids carried out in five hours, a helicopter-fired missile hit a mini-van stopped at a traffic light in densely populated Gaza City, sending pedestrians fleeing in panic. Two Hamas militants, one of them identified as Khaled al-Masri, a senior member of the radical Islamic group, were burnt to death inside their vehicle.
“We will avenge your blood,” Hamas loudspeakers threatened as supporters, chanting: “There is no alternative to bombings”, carried the militants’ bodies in a funeral march.