AFP, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie has called for a new ceasefire with Israel and voiced commitment to the troubled “road map” peace plan as veteran leader Yasser Arafat called for dialogue between the two sides.
During a session of Parliament convened in Ramallah to approve his new government, Mr Qurie called for “civilians on both sides to be spared and for an agreement on a ceasefire to be reached with clear conditions defining the commitments of both parties”.
A ceasefire called by armed Palestinian factions in the northern summer unravelled in August after a massive suicide bus bomb in Jerusalem, prompting the Israeli government to freeze all contacts with the Palestinians.
Mr Qurie, whose predecessor Mahmoud Abbas resigned in September, has previously said the securing of a mutual ceasefire would be the top priority of his new government.
Israel has said it will not consider Mr Qurie as a partner for peace unless he is prepared to dismantle the infrastructure of groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have carried out hundreds of deadly attacks.
Progress in the internationally backed road map, which envisages the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005, has ground to a halt in the past three months amid the continuing violence and absence of talks.
But Mr Qurie said his Government remained committed to the project and other agreements signed with Israel.
“Our strategic choice is to stick to peace, to the road map and to agreements signed with Israel,” he said.
While Israel has indicated that it is ready to hold talks with Mr Qurie, Mr Arafat has been dismissed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Government as an “absolute obstacle” to peace.
Mr Arafat, who has been confined to his Ramallah headquarters for nearly two years by the Israeli army, said it was time for both sides to engage in dialogue to end bloodshed.
“It's time for dialogue instead of military means, violence, assassinations and destructions,” he told MPs before Mr Qurie's speech.
“It's time for us and you Israelis to get out of this destructive cycle which will not give us or you peace or security.”
The Israeli Government decided in principle two months ago to “remove” Mr Arafat from his headquarters known as the Muqataa, with one minister even suggesting that his assassination was one of the removal options.
Mr Sharon has since said that Israel has no plans to kill Mr Arafat but the 74-year-old Palestinian leader said that he lived in daily concern for his life.
“I am telling you and the entire world that my life is threatened day and night by the Israeli Government but my life is no more important than that of any Palestinian child,” he said.
He also denounced the separation barrier being built by Israel in the West Bank as a “new Berlin Wall”. It was “depriving our people of their land, their rights and independent state and sacred Jerusalem”, he said.
Mr Sharon, who is keen to be seen to be assisting Mr Qurie, announced he had ordered an easing of restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
And one of his senior advisers said yesterday that Israel was ready to refrain from launching massive military operations in the Palestinian territories to give Mr Qurie a chance to prove himself.
“The Israeli Government is ready to abstain from launching large-scale operations in the territories and limit itself to selective raids to thwart attacks,” Zalman Shoval told AFP.
“We want to allow Mr Qurie the opportunity to prove he can reduce the level of violence and we want to find out if his plan for a ceasefire can lead to the dismantling of the terrorist organisations.”
Mr Qurie has been the head of an emergency government for the past month but he was yesterday looking for Parliament to give an enlarged 24-member cabinet its approval in a vote of confidence.