ISRAELI Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin yesterday brushed aside Palestinian demands for international protection in the wake of the Hebron massacre and warned the Russian government against supporting the idea.
Asked how he envisaged an ``international presence'' in the occupied territories, Mr. Rabin outlined plans for an aid donors' office in the Gaza Strip and Jericho - a far cry from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) call for a multinational force.
``What we have proposed is the donating countries that would like to help [having] an office in Gaza and Jericho ... from which they will conduct their relations with the Palestinian authorities in the spending of their money,'' Rabin told foreign journalists. ``We have agreed to an international presence,'' he said. ``Not to an international force presence.''
PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, meanwhile, reportedly won Russian support for his demand that multinational forces be sent to the West Bank and Gaza. The PLO news agency, WAFA, said Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, visiting PLO headquarters in Tunis, had expressed ``comprehension and agreement with the Palestinian stand.''
That presaged a wider international conflict over sending observers to protect Palestinians in the occupied territories, a move that the US opposes.
Rabin said he was worried by what he called ``a slight change in Russian foreign policy, an attempt to be more active ... to be in a position to have their own input, hopefully in coordination with the United States,'' the other cosponsor of the Middle East peace process. ``I hope so, but I am not sure'' about the extent of coordination, he added.
``Whenever there is no cooperation between the two cosponsors, there is a possibility to try to exploit it by some of the partners in the negotiations,'' Rabin said, in a clear reference to the PLO.
Mr. Ivanov was due to arrive in Israel yesterday evening.
Addressing a lunch hosted by the Foreign Press Association, Rabin also promised further crackdowns on the extreme right-wing group Kach, to which Baruch Goldstein, the Jewish settler who killed at least 40 Palestinians in a mosque in Hebron last Friday, belonged.
The government has issued orders for the detention without trial of five Kach leaders and limited the movements of 18 more. ``They will be disarmed, and this is not a last figure,'' he said.
But the premier rejected Palestinian calls for all Jewish settlers in the occupied territories to be disarmed and said he would not remove any settlers from their homes. ``At the present we have to stick to the agreement between the PLO and the government of Israel signed in Washington'' last September, he insisted. ``In this agreement, the settlements will stay for the period of the interim arrangement,'' due to end in five years with an accord on the occupied territories' final status.
Rabin's firm insistence on not departing from the agreement negotiated secretly with the PLO in Oslo, Norway, last year means he is refusing anything more than the ``temporary international or foreign presence, as agreed upon'' that the Declaration of Principles decreed.
That presence was initially planned as a guarantee of a smooth transition of authority from the Israelis to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho.
``We certainly did not envisage such a degree of intensity of violence,'' said Hanan Ashrawi, former spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks.
In the wake of the Hebron mosque massacre, the Palestinians are hoping for ``a United Nations force that would have the ability to make a difference, at least by its visibility and presence as a neutral force that would be a buffer zone'' between Palestinians and Jewish settlers, Ms. Ashrawi explained.
Successive Israeli governments have always refused to allow any international observers to base themselves in the occupied territories.
The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA), which assists Palestinian refugees, employs 21 Refugee Affairs Officers in the West Bank and Gaza who often intervene in clashes between the Israeli Army and Palestinians and who report quarterly to UN headquarters on the overall situation in the occupied territories.
But the Israelis do not formally recognize that role, and do not offer UNWRA officials any facilities beyond the freedom to move around during curfews.
``They don't have any teeth,'' Ashrawi complains. ``The Israelis don't listen to them or take them seriously, and what we need is an observer force armed for self defense - an unarmed presence is never taken seriously.''