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US Envoy Returns to Mideast - 2002-01-02

U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni arrives in Israel Thursday in another attempt to broker a ceasefire and clear the way for resumption of peace negotiations.

Palestinian leaders are calling on Mr. Zinni to implement the ceasefire plan put forth last year. The so-called Mitchell Plan calls for a ceasefire and phased return to peace talks over a six-month period of calm.

The Israeli army says the level of violence has dropped sharply since Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat called for calm on December 16. The Palestinian Authority says it is doing all it can to curb extremist violence against Israelis.

A U.S. embassy spokesman says Mr. Zinni will try to build on the encouraging developments of the past few weeks. He has meetings scheduled with Israeli and Palestinian officials during his four-day visit.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon still insists on seven days of absolute quiet before considering any resumption of peace talks. But he has talked with security forces about easing military blockades of Palestinian-ruled towns and villages.

Any easing of travel restrictions does not appear to apply to Mr. Arafat. He has been a virtual prisoner in the West Bank town of Ramallah since early December, when Israel intensified its military operations in Palestinian territories and destroyed Mr. Arafat's helicopters.

Israel's government has barred the Palestinian leader from traveling outside Ramallah. He was not allowed to attend Christmas celebrations in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. It was the first time he was absent from the festivities since the West Bank town was passed to Palestinian control in 1995.

Prime Minister Sharon complains that Mr. Arafat is not doing enough to curb terrorism and has called on foreign governments to refrain from welcoming him until the violence ends. Palestinians say they have gone a long way toward preventing any more suicide bombings and mortar attacks against Israel.

The latest cycle of violence, which erupted 15 months ago, has claimed more than one thousand victims, most of them Palestinians. An Israeli human rights group says the victims included more than 160 Palestinian and 27 Israeli children.