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Sharon hopes to establish `personal contact' in near future

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March 10, 2001 

  

JERUSALEM, MAR 9 (AP) - In one of his first acts as Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon sent a note to his long-time enemy Yasser Arafat, saying he hoped to establish "personal contact in the near future" with the Palestinian leader, Sharon's office said Friday.


Sharon did not demand that Palestinian attacks on Israelis cease before such a meeting take place. However, Sharon has said formal negotiations can only begin once all violence stops.


In the Gaza Strip, Palestinians fired shots toward Israel's new defense minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, during a tour of Israeli army positions. Ben-Eliezer, who stood on the roof of divisional headquarters near the Palestinian town of Khan Yunis, briefly ducked behind a low wall when the shots rang out and was not hurt.


In several incidents in the West Bank and Gaza, five Palestinians were wounded by Israeli fire and a sixth, a shepherd, was critically wounded in a shooting near a Jewish settlement. Three settlers were detained by police for questioning.


Also Friday, the top Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, was blocked by Israeli troops from visiting parishioners in the West Bank village of Ein Arik, his office said. Sabbah, a Palestinian, was turned away by troops enforcing a strict blockade of Palestinian communities, in effect for most of the past five months. Sabbah said the travel restrictions violated Israel's 1994 diplomatic agreement with the Vatican. The army had no immediate comment.


Fear of Palestinian bomb attacks, meanwhile, put a damper on celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Purim. Outdoor festivals were canceled, and police and soldiers patrolled markets, shopping malls and city centers in large numbers.


During his first full day in office Thursday, Sharon received a note of good wishes from Arafat. The two have had a hostile relationship for decades. Sharon has never agreed to shake Arafat's hand, and in an interview last year called him a "murderer.".


Replying, Sharon wrote that the only way to achieve peace is through "direct talks and negotiations on the basis of written and signed agreements and obligations."


"I hope we will find the way to have personal contacts in the near future," Sharon added.


Sharon was elected Feb. 6 in a landslide over Ehud Barak, a vote seen by many as a repudiation of Barak's policy of offering far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians for peace, and conducting negotiations while a Palestinian uprising is in progress.


Since riots erupted Sept. 28, following Sharon's visit to a disputed holy site in the Old City of Jerusalem claimed by both sides, 423 people have been killed, including 347 Palestinians, 57 Israeli Jews and 19 others.


Sharon formed a broad-based coalition to confront the violence, but has not disclosed what steps he would take to stop it.


Ben-Eliezer, the new defense minister, sought to reassure Palestinians Friday that Israel is not targeting the general population. Visiting an army base in the West Bank a day after taking office, Ben-Eliezer said Israel's aim is to stop attackers. "We have no conflict with the population," he said.


Citing security needs, Israel imposed a blockade on the West Bank and Gaza, preventing more than 100,000 Palestinians from reaching their jobs in Israel, and limiting travel inside the territories. The measures have crippled the Palestinian economy.


Palestinian Industry Minister Saadi al-Krunz said costs of exporting goods to Israel have skyrocketed because of the restrictions. "The Israeli (truck) drivers refuse to enter our areas without the payment of exorbitant fees," he told Globes, an Israeli financial daily. Israel is by far the largest Palestinian market for exports.



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