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Arafat Considering Israeli Travel Offer - 2003-08-16

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat wants international guarantees of safe return before he decides whether to accept an Israeli offer to leave his besieged Ramallah compound for a brief visit to Gaza.

Mr. Arafat has been unable to leave his West Bank headquarters for the last 17 months, for fear that Israel will not allow him to return.

Israeli troops surrounded Mr. Arafat's compound in March last year after Israel's prime minister declared him an enemy, saying he has encouraged terror attacks against Israelis.

Negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel this week have led to an Israeli offer to allow Mr. Arafat to make a one-time trip from Ramallah to the Gaza Strip to visit the grave of his sister, who died earlier this week.

But an aide to Mr. Arafat said the Palestinian president wants guarantees from the sponsors of the so-called "road map" peace plan that he will be able to return to the West Bank if he leaves. The United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations back the peace plan.

This development follows a meeting Friday in which the Israeli and Palestinian security chiefs agreed to a deal for Israel to hand over control of the West Bank cities of Qalqilyah and Jericho to the Palestinian Authority. A meeting between officials of both sides to determine the timetable for the transfer is scheduled for Sunday.

Earlier reports said Israel would withdraw from the two West Bank cities early next week.

Also on the table is a proposal for Israel to withdraw from Ramallah and Tulkarm sometime in the next two weeks. But that deal could fall apart if there are any terror attacks on Israel before the handover.