GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – A Palestinian militant group warned an American delegation Tuesday not to visit the Palestinian territories, accusing the United States of bias in favor of Israel. Hours later, some group members backed down from the veiled threats.
Meanwhile, Israel prepared to take down an unauthorized outpost in the West Bank. Israeli security sources said Hazon David (search) is one of several such outposts to be dismantled ahead of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's trip to the United States next month.
The move appeared to be aimed at building U.S. support for Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and small parts of the West Bank. Sharon is scheduled to discuss the plan with President Bush in Washington on April 14.
The United States has demanded for months that Israel remove dozens of unauthorized outposts, saying they prejudice negotiations on the future of disputed territory. But Sharon has taken little action, and those outposts occasionally removed are rebuilt quickly.
The American diplomatic delegation is scheduled to arrive in the region Wednesday to hear more about the withdrawal plan. U.S. officials said Monday they refuse to support the plan for now but would consider changing their minds after more talks with Israeli and Arab officials.
The team consists of Assistant Secretary of State William J. Burns (search), National Security Council Deputy Director Stephen J. Hadley and the council's Mideast specialist, Elliott Abrams (search). It is their third trip to the area since February.
In Gaza, the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search) — a violent group linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction — issued a statement saying the delegation was banned from Palestinian areas. It also accused America of unfairly preventing the U.N. Security Council from condemning Israel's assassination of Hamas (search) founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin last week.
"This visit is rejected completely, and the American administration will not like the circumstances of such a visit," it said.
Hours later, however, Al Aqsa leaders softened the statement, saying there were no plans to harm the diplomats.
"We will not use force against the Americans because we don't want one more enemy. We have one enemy and that's enough," said Abu Qusay, an Al Aqsa leader in Gaza.
However, he said the Americans still were unwelcome in the Palestinian areas and the group would call for anti-American demonstrations and boycotts of American goods.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Paul Patin said he did not believe the American delegation planned to enter the West Bank or Gaza, but "clearly our security people will be interested in this (threat)."
The incident illustrated the Palestinians' ambivalent feelings toward the United States. While there is widespread hostility toward Washington, Palestinian leaders are wary of angering the United States because of its influence over Israel.
Last week, the militant group Hamas issued veiled threats against the United States following Yassin's assassination. In the following days, the group reversed course, saying its battle was confined to Israel.
Many Palestinians have grown weary of the violent campaign, which began in September 2000 and has claimed thousands of lives, but remain pessimistic about reaching a peaceful settlement.
On Tuesday, a group of prominent Palestinians rejected recent calls by intellectuals and moderates to give up the violence, saying the campaign was justified as long as Israel occupies Palestinian land. Their leaflet was widely distributed in the West Bank.
At the Hazon David outpost, meanwhile, dozens of Jewish settlers scuffled with Israeli troops trying to prevent the dismantling of an unauthorized synagogue on a West Bank hilltop, settlers said.
More than 200 Jewish settlers arrived at the one-trailer outpost to nonviolently block soldiers, said settler spokeswoman Rachel Klein.
The army declined to say whether there were plans to dismantle the outpost.
Dror Etkes, spokesman for the Peace Now monitoring group, said the dismantling of Hazon David — located at the entrance of the Kiryat Arba (search) settlement — is symbolic.
"It's the same old game to take down an insignificant outpost and make a big deal out of it," he said.
Israel is supposed to dismantle dozens of illegal outposts as part of the stalled U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan. The Palestinians are required to crack down on militant groups.
Neither side has carried out its commitments.
Israel also has established some 150 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, housing more than 230,000 people.
With the peace plan stalled, Sharon has proposed his unilateral withdrawal plan to reduce tensions. Sharon has said the Palestinians would receive far more territory in a negotiated settlement. Nonetheless, he faces fierce opposition inside Israel for giving up territory.
Sharon plans to hold a nonbinding referendum among the 230,000 members of his Likud Party (search) on a Gaza withdrawal, a government official said. He was expected to ask Likud's ruling body Tuesday to approve his referendum idea, the official said on condition of anonymity.