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Israelis warn Arabs about Arafat, Gaza

By Wire services
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 1, 2003

JERUSALEM - Israel will not negotiate with any new government hand-picked by Yasser Arafat, the Israeli foreign minister said Sunday in the first public warning to those trying to topple beleaguered Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

And in the latest and strongest signal by the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israel may intend to seize parts of the Gaza Strip, the country's defense minister on Sunday explicitly raised the prospect of a ground offensive in the teeming Palestinian enclave.

A power struggle between Arafat and Abbas has intensified in recent days, with clashes over key appointments and control of security forces.

Several Palestinian legislators, including Arafat allies, are lobbying to oust Abbas this week after he presents the achievements of his first 100 days in office to Parliament. It remains unclear whether the session scheduled for Thursday will be followed by a vote of confidence.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom suggested Sunday that an already troubled U.S.-backed peace plan, the "road map," would be derailed if Abbas is ousted.

"Israel will not negotiate with a new government formed under the instructions and the influence of Arafat," Shalom said after a meeting with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana in Tel Aviv.

Meanwhile, the Israelis hinted at an offensive in Gaza, which for nearly two weeks has been the scene of steadily escalating violence after the collapse of a self-declared truce by Palestinian militant groups.

The remarks of Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz came hours after an Israeli truck driver was shot and seriously wounded by a Hamas gunman in southern Gaza, and thousands of Palestinians marched in furious funeral processions for an 8-year-old girl accidentally shot dead by Israeli troops and for two Hamas militants assassinated by Israeli helicopter-fired missiles a day earlier.

"We have the option of a ground operation in Gaza," Mofaz told journalists traveling with him as he and other government officials visited Israeli pupils on their first day back at school. "We will exercise it when we decide it is right to do so."

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