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Sharon Says ‘Occupation’ Not What He Meant

Times Staff Writers

A day after he stunned Israelis and Palestinians alike by describing his nation’s long hold on the West Bank and Gaza Strip as an “occupation,” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon backtracked Tuesday, saying he should have termed Israel’s presence in the areas “control over disputed lands.”

Sharon’s office issued the clarification after the Israeli leader was criticized by furious right-wing lawmakers -- backed by the nation’s attorney general -- for using a term many here believe could buttress Palestinian claims to the land seized by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War. Successive Israeli governments have sidestepped the legal issue of occupation by describing the territories as “disputed” and saying their status would be negotiated in a final peace accord.

The controversy Tuesday marked the second time in as many days that Sharon, one of Israel’s most prominent hawks, found himself at the center of a political storm for a position his right-wing allies deemed too conciliatory toward the Palestinians. On Sunday, the prime minister persuaded his Cabinet to endorse a U.S.-backed peace initiative calling for the creation of a Palestinian state, but he was forced to defend himself Monday in a series of angry meetings.

Tuesday’s dispute over language came as the fragile new peace process appeared to struggle to make headway. Israeli and Palestinian leaders postponed for at least 24 hours a meeting planned for today. Officials for each side said the other should take the first step on the so-called road map to peace.

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Meanwhile, Israeli troops clashed with Palestinian youths in several West Bank locations, killing a teenager and wounding at least five other young people, Palestinians said.

Sharon and the new Palestinian Authority prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, had planned to hold talks today, their second meeting in less than two weeks. But the talks were postponed because of scheduling difficulties, according to Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr. Israeli officials suggested that the delay came at the behest of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, an account Amr denied.

Both Israeli and Palestinian officials said that the postponement was not serious and that the two leaders could meet as early as Thursday. That would set the stage for a three-way summit between the leaders and President Bush, now expected to take place next week at Jordan’s Red Sea resort of Aqaba. Bush is also expected to meet in Egypt with Arab leaders to press for support of the peace effort.

With the U.S. urging the two sides to push forward on the plan, Sharon has faced continued criticism from right-wing politicians for persuading his Cabinet to endorse it and for his comments defending it.

“You may not like the word, but what’s happening is occupation,” Sharon told angry lawmakers from his Likud Party on Monday. And occupation, he said, repeating the word throughout his comments, “is a terrible thing” for both Israelis and Palestinians.

On Tuesday, after further criticism and a warning from Israel’s attorney general, Elyakim Rubinstein, that his use of the word could weaken Israel’s position in negotiations, the prime minister issued the clarification.

In a statement, he said he had been referring to Israel’s rule over Palestinians, not the territories themselves, which many Israelis regard as part of the Jewish homeland and are reluctant to relinquish. In a speech later Tuesday, Sharon sought to resolve the issue.

“We do not want to control 3 1/2 million Palestinians,” he told an audience in the northern city of Haifa. “This is not good for us, nor is it good for the Palestinians. This is what I meant when I used the term ‘occupation.’ We are not occupiers.”

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Since 1967, when it captured the West Bank and Gaza, Israel has argued that there was no legitimate foreign sovereignty over the land when the war began, said legal analyst Moshe Negbi, so it could claim that the territories are not “occupied.” Otherwise, he said, Israel fears that it could be required to turn over all of the disputed land in a final settlement with the Palestinians.

“The Israeli claim is that the West Bank had been annexed illegally by Jordan and that Gaza was held under military law by Egypt,” Negbi said. “Of course, most of the world does not recognize this claim and sees the territories as occupied land.”

Israeli politicians were not alone in taking note of Sharon’s words. Palestinian officials described them as a watershed for a man they have long viewed as unlikely to cede territory.

“This is very, very important,” said Amr, the information minister. “It’s a turning point in Sharon’s thinking and may make a difference in the government’s decisions.... He’s maneuvering, we know, but I think also that it’s not easy for Ariel Sharon to say what he said yesterday.”

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Michael Tarazi, a Palestinian legal advisor, said Sharon’s figure of 3.5 million Palestinians appeared to include those living in East Jerusalem as well as the West Bank and Gaza. Israel annexed the eastern half of Jerusalem after the war and has said the city will never be divided.

“I don’t know what came over” Sharon, Tarazi said. “I think for a brief moment he said, ‘Look guys, let’s call a spade a spade.’ ”

Palestinian officials voiced concern, meanwhile, about emerging details of the objections to the peace blueprint that the Israeli Cabinet insisted on before its vote.

The reservations, published in newspapers here Tuesday and confirmed by Israeli officials, mainly involve security issues, ranging from a call for the U.S. to have sole authority to monitor progress to an insistence on an unspecified period of calm before the process can begin.

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The list also includes a refusal by Israel to discuss, until the final steps of the process, such issues as the status of Palestinian Authority institutions in Jerusalem. The peace plan calls on Israel to allow such institutions to reopen in the first phase.

Amr said the document amounted to “a new road map,” one produced by Israel, and he reiterated his hope that the U.S. would decline to change the original text. But the information minister also portrayed the list as less significant than the Israeli leader’s statement on occupation and his endorsement of the peace plan.

“That’s the most important thing,” Amr said. “But how will he market this to the Israeli people? It’s up to him. He can use any language he wants, but along with the Palestinians, he must implement this road map.”

Violence flared in several West Bank towns and villages Tuesday, with a 16-year-old boy reported killed and a 7-year-old injured in the Tulkarm refugee camp. The Israeli army said a Palestinian threw a Molotov cocktail toward border police, who fired, striking the youth.

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In a village near Nablus and in Jenin, Palestinians said, four youths, 9 to 14, were wounded, one critically. The army confirmed the clashes but said it was not aware of injuries.


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