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Carter says Israeli treatment of Palestinians is ‘a crime’

Times Staff Writer

Former President Carter told a university audience here Thursday that the treatment of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip by the Israeli military was “a crime” but that there were “officials in Israel quite willing to meet with Hamas” and that may happen “in the near future.”

Carter spoke to students and faculty at American University in Cairo after talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and a separate three-hour meeting with Hamas officials. The Bush administration and Israel have set rules to not talk to the militant Palestinian group, which controls the Gaza Strip, but Carter said, “I consider myself immune” from such restrictions.

He added that he wasn’t acting as a negotiator or mediator, but hoped that he “might set an example to be emulated” by others.

The former president’s meetings with Hamas in recent days have outraged Israelis, but Carter was undeterred, even suggesting that his recent book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” was aptly named because apartheid “is the exact description of what’s happening in Palestine now.”

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He spoke to a mostly appreciative audience, except for one American student from Amherst, Mass., who suggested that Carter was giving legitimacy to terrorists by meeting with Hamas. A murmur went through the crowd.

The former Georgia governor said he told Hamas officials that “the worst thing” they were doing to their cause was firing rockets into Israel, which he called “abominable and an act of terrorism.” Before the student could agree, Carter did his own mathematics of bloodshed. He said that for every Israeli killed in the conflict, 30 to 40 Palestinians died because of Israel’s superior military and “pinpoint accuracy.”

His white eyebrows bright in the spotlight, Carter then slipped back into diplomatic mode: “I’m not blaming one [side] or the other. . . . Any side that kills innocent people is guilty of terrorism.”

Carter said Hamas officials told him that they would allow a referendum on the fate of Palestinians if Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the rival Palestinian Authority, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reached an agreement. Carter added that Israelis must be assured that Hamas would stop rocket attacks and suicide bombers.

“I think it’s an atrocity what is being perpetuated as punishment” against the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza, Carter said. He added that the situation was “a crime” and that people were being “starved” to death living behind walls in prison conditions.

It was almost 30 years ago that Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin made peace at Camp David. Thursday, Carter took a moment to remember those times. He drew applause when, with a jab at the Bush administration, he mentioned that he didn’t wait until his final days in office to try to find a way to peace.

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

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