Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said late Monday, March 19, his country had already begun taking measures to ease economic hardships in Palestinian-controlled territories. But he also warned that new peace talks with the Palestinians would not take place until violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip stopped.
"We are already taking immediate steps to ease up restrictions and improve the economic situation of the Palestinian population," said Sharon, addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a key Israeli lobby here. However, he stopped short of providing specifics.
The remark came after the White House earlier Monday expressed a wish to see Israel's economic sanctions against the Palestinian Authority eased. "The president would like to see an easing of economic pressure," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Israel closed its borders with the West Bank and Gaza following the outbreak of Palestinian violence last September, preventing thousands of Palestinians from going to work in Israel.
Palestinian officials also accuse Israel of failing to return $400 million in tax revenues and customs duties collected from Palestinians.
The Palestinian economy has lost $1.15 billion since September, or 20 percent of its gross domestic product, according to UN Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen.
US President George W. Bush is scheduled to meet with Sharon Tuesday with new Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to discuss the situation in the Middle East and prospects for regional peace.
In his speech, the Israeli prime minister also reiterated his long-held position that Israel should not negotiate while violence is rocking Palestinian territories.
"Arafat must understand, first and foremost, that he will gain nothing from violence," said Sharon. "Israel will not negotiate while Israeli civilians and soldiers are under fire or under threat of terror." He also said that in any future talks with the Palestinians, Israel "will not be bound by the record of past negotiations that failed."
The Israeli leader warned about growing security threats in the Middle East, which he said, were coming mainly from Iran and Iraq. "There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein is seeking to restore his mass destruction weapons capability and his quest for long-range missiles," he said, referring to the Iraqi president.
Sharon said Iran was planning to increase the range of its missiles, putting the Middle East, Western Europe, Russia "and even parts of the United States itself at risk."
He expressed support for US plans to develop and deploy a national missile defense system, saying Israel was ready to strengthen cooperation with the United States on the project. "It is our hope that Israel's own experiences in missile defense can help the United States and its allies in protecting their future security," said Sharon. — (AFP, Washington)
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)