JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) said for the first time Monday that Israel would not kill Yasser Arafat (search), as defense officials confirmed plans to begin providing services to eight settlement outposts in the West Bank (search).
The decision on the outposts came despite the government's earlier pledge to remove them as part of a stalled U.S.-backed peace plan. Palestinians complained that Israel is systematically undermining the "road map" peace plan.
Dismantling dozens of unauthorized settlement outposts was one of Israel's obligations under the road map, which was launched in June with great fanfare but quickly bogged down over disagreements and violence.
In response to Palestinian homicide bombings, Israel's Cabinet last month decided to "remove" Arafat at an unspecified time, prompting speculation that Israel would expel or assassinate the Palestinian leader.
"I don't see any plans to kill him," Sharon told a group of European lawmakers on Monday, while accusing Arafat of orchestrating attacks on Israelis during three years of fighting.
"You don't have to worry. He's alive and not only is he alive but very active in taking all the ... steps ... that bring to murder of children, civilians, the old," Sharon said.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, meanwhile, said he welcomed the prospect of talks with Hamas on halting attacks on Israelis. The Islamic militant group, which just days earlier had taken part in a deadly attack on a Jewish settlement in Gaza, said Sunday it was ready to hear Qureia's truce proposals. Egypt also confirmed its participation in the truce talks.
Qureia's term as head of an emergency Cabinet expires Nov. 4, just a month after he took office, and he has said he does not want to continue as prime minister. However, there is growing expectation that Yasser Arafat will reappoint Qureia, despite their disagreements over control of the security services.
Qureia has said he wants to negotiate a truce with Israel, and for that he'd need assurances from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militants that they are ready to halt attacks on Israelis.
"We are working toward a mutual cease-fire, and if they (Israel) are ready, then we are also ready," Qureia said at a news conference Monday.
Also Monday, one Palestinian was killed, one wounded and three were detained by Israeli troops near the border fence between the Gaza Strip and Israel. It was not clear whether the five were trying to sneak into Israel, the army said.
An official in Israel's Defense Ministry, meanwhile, confirmed that residents of eight settlement outposts would be given some services. The outposts, which usually consist of little more than a couple of trailers and an Israeli flag, will be fenced in and receive lighting, and children living there will be bused to schools, said a ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The assurances were given to residents of the outpost in a letter by Ron Shechner, the settlement adviser of Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.
Shechner told the Yediot Ahronot daily that this does not mean the outposts are being legalized. However, the decision appears to imply recognition, and as such would violate Israel's promise to the United States not to establish new settlements.
The Israeli group Peace Now, which monitors settlement expansion, said that when the road map was launched, there were 104 outposts. Since then, the military has dismantled seven, but five more were established, bringing the latest total to 102. Peace Now spokesman Dror Etkes said the population in the outposts has grown.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat accused Israel of systematically sabotaging the road map. "These actions have to be condemned by the United States and the Quartet (of Mideast mediators) and I call upon them to intervene immediately," Erekat said.
The road map required Israel to dismantle dozens of settlement outposts built without authorization since March 2001, and to freeze construction in about 150 veteran settlements.
Israel has since said it would take no further action on the road map until the Palestinians begin dismantling militant groups, as required by the peace plan. Qureia, like his predecessors, has said he will not use force against the armed groups.
Hamas spokesman Ismail Haniyeh said Sunday that Qureia had invited the group for talks toward a new cease-fire with Israel, and that Hamas accepted.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad have been responsible for most of the 104 homicide bombings that have killed hundreds of Israelis in three years of conflict.
On Friday, Hamas and Islamic Jihad cooperated in an attack in the Israeli settlement of Netzarim in the Gaza Strip. Three soldiers, including two women, were killed.
Israel hit back early Sunday, blowing up three empty high-rise buildings near Netzarim, charging that militants used the buildings as lookout points.
Israel briefly evacuated 2,000 Palestinians from their homes in the night before destroying the buildings. The explosion rocked the area for miles around and sent plumes of black smoke and debris into the air, causing damage to many nearby Palestinian homes.