US gears up for ceasefire as Sharon sends in the tanks

15 March 2002

The US administration has launched a fresh bid to resolve the Palestine crisis following the most intensive assaults to date by Israeli forces on Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

President Bush's special envoy, Anthony Zinni, arrived back in the region on 14 March with instructions to remain in place until a ceasefire has been established and negotiations are under way. His two previous efforts ended in dismal failure.

Ahead of Zinni's mission, the US submitted to the UN Security Council a resolution that for the first time refers explicitly to the need to create a state of Palestine. The resolution was passed by 14-0, with Syria abstaining.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's preparations for the new US initiative entailed sending 150 tanks into Ramallah, and launching a heavy assault on Jabalya, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli operations resulted in the deaths of 28 Palestinians on 12 March alone. Seven Israelis were killed on the same day when gunmen disguised as Israeli soldiers attacked motorists on a road close to the border with Lebanon. Israel and the UN are investigating whether the gunmen might have come from Lebanese territory.

Bush on 13 March voiced disquiet about Israel's latest actions. 'It's not helpful what the Israelis have recently done,' he said.

Sharon's military onslaught came after his 10 March announcement that he had decided to lift restrictions imposed on the movement of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and to drop the insistence on seven days of quiet as a precondition for a ceasefire. These moves provoked the resignation of two far-right members of his ruling coalition. One of them was said to be reconsidering his resignation on 14 March.

The UN resolution included a reference to the peace initiative of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah that is to be presented to the 27-28 March Arab summit conference in Beirut. Arab foreign affairs ministers discussed the Saudi proposals at a preparatory meeting in Cairo on 9 March. The most significant change was the substitution of a pledge to 'normalise' relations with Israel following an Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories with the pledge to have 'complete peace' with Israel. This has been seen as reflecting the desire of Syria to maintain an arms-length relationship with Israel following a peace agreement.

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