Arafat: Israel Must Not Keep Settlements

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (search) said Wednesday the peace process would be dead if the United States assures Israel it can keep some key West Bank settlement blocs and would not have to absorb Palestinian refugees.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) was to meet President Bush in Washington on Wednesday and hoped to secure a U.S. endorsement for his plan, under which Israel would withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements.

Palestinian leaders held an emergency meeting Wednesday to discuss Sharon's White House meeting. A statement issued by Arafat's office on his and the Palestinian leadership's behalf said U.S. assurances on the West Bank settlement blocks and the refugees would ruin future negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

"The Palestinian leadership warns of the dangers of reaching such an accord, because it means clearly the complete end of the peace process," the statement said.

The assurances would also lead to a "cycle of violence and end all the signed agreements" between the Palestinians and Israel, the statement said.

Palestinians see the settlements as an illegal encroachment on land they want for a future state and support refugees' demands to return to the land they fled during the 1948-49 war.

Earlier, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) said any Israeli withdrawal must follow the "road map," a U.S.-backed peace plan calling for an independent Palestinian state that has been stalled in recent months.

"We hope the U.S. administration ... will remain committed to its responsibilities ... and not say anything that is considered a reward for a party or a side at the expense of the other party," he said. "Otherwise, there will be no peace."

Sharon has proposed uprooting all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four settlements in the West Bank — with a combined population of about 8,500 — as part of his plan to separate Israelis and Palestinians in the absence of peace moves. In return, Sharon hopes to expand five large blocs of Israeli settlements in the West Bank with a current population of about 125,000.

The Israeli prime minister must also get approval for the plan from his own Likud party, which has long supported the construction of settlements. A party vote is set for May 2, and Sharon has said he would abide by the results of the poll.

Several leading Likud figures oppose the withdrawal plan and have begun campaigning against it. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz was spearheading the campaign for the proposal, his office said Wednesday.

The party said Wednesday it was organizing two debates in coming weeks between Sharon and Cabinet minister Uzi Landau, who opposes the plan.

Also Wednesday, two Palestinians were lightly wounded as villagers clashed with troops in the West Bank village of Biddou during a protest over a separation barrier Israel is building that runs through local orchards.

Youths threw rocks at troops who responded by firing rubber coated bullets and tear gas.

Israel says the barrier is needed to keep Palestinian militants out of Israel. Palestinians view the barrier as an Israeli land grab.

In Gaza City, some 3,000 Palestinians including 400 gunmen attended a rally calling for the release of jailed uprising leader Marwan Barghouti and the other Palestinians.

One Palestinian, identified as Ali Amar, 22, was killed when he was shot in the head by gunmen firing in the air, hospital officials said.

Barghouti, the highest ranking Palestinian captured by Israel, has been charged with being involved in attacks that killed 26 Israelis. The rally came in the run-up to the day Palestinians express their solidarity with their prisoners in Israeli jails.

Also Wednesday, about 3,000 Palestinian laborers refused to cross into the Erez industrial zone along the boundary between Gaza and Israel for the second day.

Workers say they were protesting what they called humiliating security checks, especially body searches.

Israeli troops also blew up a house in the West Bank city of Nablus on Wednesday that belonged to the family of Sabih Abu Saud, a suicide bomber who blew himself up in a West Bank village last November as the army hunted him down.

Israel routinely demolishes the houses of homicide bombers' families.