Arafat blasts Israeli border fence plan

Hamuda Hassan,RAMALLAH, West Bank, Reuters

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat condemned Israel’s building of a security fence along its West Bank border as an “act of racism” on Monday, and rejected fierce U.S. criticism of his Palestinian Authority.

Arafat lashed out against the planned US$220 million fence, which Israel started building on Sunday and says is intended to stop suicide bombers, after a Palestinian blew himself up on the frontier near an Israeli border patrol. No one else was hurt.

Arafat’s comments reflected his deteriorating relationships with Israel and the United States, which have criticised him repeatedly as they seek reforms of the Palestinian Authority and as President George W. Bush works on a Middle East peace plan.

The Palestinians fear Israel will seize Palestinian land as it marks out the security fence after 20 months of conflict, and that it will prevent Palestinians from entering Israel to work.

“It is a sinful assault on our land, an act of racism and apartheid which we totally reject,”Arafat told reporters as he toured schools in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Arafat also rejected criticism by U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice in an interview with a U.S. newspaper.

She told the San Jose Mercury News that “the Palestinian Authority, which is corrupt and cavorts with terror…is not the basis for a Palestinian state moving forward”.

Arafat hit back, saying: “We are implementing only what our people want us to do and we do not take orders from anyone.”

Arafat has responded to the growing U.S. and Israeli pressure by announcing the Palestinians will hold legislative and presidential elections in December or January and by condemning suicide bombings inside Israel. But he says reforms, such as streamlining the security forces and cracking down on militants, are hampered by frequent Israeli military raids into Palestinian-ruled areas and by military blockades across the West Bank.

At least 1,399 Palestinians and 511 Israelis have been killed since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000 after peace talks stalled.

The Palestinian suicide bomber killed only himself when he triggered explosives near a border police unit on Israel’s side of the frontier north of the Palestinian city of Tulkarm.

“A border patrol unit saw a suspicious person and they called to him to stop. There was an explosion, he was apparently a suicide bomber,” a border police spokeswoman said.

She said there were no Israeli casualties.

Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said the man was one of five would-be suicide bombers being sought by security forces on the basis of intelligence reports.

“A year ago there weren’t two suicide bombers (trying to reach Israel) every day,” Ben-Eliezer said. “Our problem today is how to stop this wave of suicide bombers.”

He said the security fence was intended to halt such attacks and was not being built for political reasons.

He rejected the Palestinian criticism and dismissed the fears of right-wing Israelis that the fence, which will stretch 110 km (70 miles) in its first stage, will weaken their claims to West Bank land occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.

Palestinian militants have deployed suicide bombers as their main weapon in their struggle for an independent state.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told his cabinet on Sunday the time was not right for a Palestinian state.

He has said previously that Palestinian statehood should be the product of long-term peacemaking, after Palestinians cease their uprising and overhaul the Palestinian Authority.