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Sharon May Lift Confinement of Arafat

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he is prepared to lift a three-month siege that has confined Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to the West Bank city of Ramallah. The Israeli leader spoke as the United States prepares a new diplomatic initiative to broker a cease-fire between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Prime Minister Sharon told a group of army veterans late Sunday that he is ready to end the blockade of Mr. Arafat. Mr. Sharon did not say when he would lift the siege.

Mr. Arafat has been confined to his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah since December, and he wants to attend an Arab League summit in Beirut at the end of March.

Mr. Sharon said Mr. Arafat has met the conditions for lifting the siege with the arrest of the suspected killers of cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi, who was killed in October.

The Sharon announcement came at the end of another day of conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Israeli helicopters pounded Mr. Arafat's Gaza Strip office to rubble Sunday in retaliation for a Palestinian suicide bombing in Jerusalem Saturday night that killed 11 people and wounded more than 50 others.

The Israeli cabinet authorized an intensification of military actions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Mr. Sharon said Israel is at war and must stand united against terrorism.

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert visited the scene of the bombing. He said the international community should stop criticizing Israel for defending itself.

"It is entirely different when you have to face these people right here and these people don't listen to all these compromises and all these advises and all these analyses of political complications," he said. "They want blood, and they want Jewish blood and they want it as much as possible and that is what they are after."

It is into this emotionally charged atmosphere that U.S. Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni will step when he arrives in Israel in the middle of this week. He is expected to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders in pursuit of a cease-fire.

Mr. Sharon has dropped his earlier demand that there must be seven days of calm before talks on a truce can begin. Palestinians leaders say they want an end to what they call Israeli "massacres" before starting cease-fire talks.