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Arab Experts: Arafat Release a Minor Point - 2002-03-11

After confining him for three months in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Israel announced Monday that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would be free to travel throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Hassan Nafae is the head of the political science department at Cairo University. He welcomes Mr. Arafat's release, but believes it will have little effect, one way or the other, on the peace process. For Mr. Nafae, the release is a sign that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was forced to react to international pressure. "It's good news but its impact on the situation in the Middle East will be very limited," he said. "This does not mean the end of occupation. This does not mean, necessarily, a progress in the peace process. This means, also, that the pressure, the international pressure toward Sharon and the Israeli government has produced something."

Mr. Sharon on Sunday said he was lifting the travel restrictions on Mr. Arafat, because the Palestinian leader had met Israel's condition of arresting all the suspects in the killing of an Israeli cabinet minister last December. But the prime minister also said that Israel would continue its military campaign in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Mohammed Kamal teaches political science at Cairo University. He says Mr. Sharon 'appears to be offering a carrot and a stick in order to end the bloodshed.' "Sharon let Arafat free," he said. "But he can't give up everything at the same time. So, he said, he will continue the military option while pursuing the peace negotiations at the same time."

Freedom of movement for Mr. Arafat is being announced just as Vice President Dick Cheney is about to begin a tour of the Mideast that includes stops in nine Arab countries as well as Israel. U.S. special envoy Anthony Zinni is also expected in the Middle East later this week.

At the end of the month an Arab League summit will be held in Beirut. While Israel has said it is lifting restrictions on Mr. Arafat's travel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it has said he will be required to get its permission for travel abroad.

Both political analysts agree the presence of Mr. Arafat would have a positive effect on the success of the Beirut meeting. Among other things, the summit will be discussing a Saudi peace proposal that calls for Arab normalization of relations with Israel in return for a complete Israeli withdrawal from lands it captured during the 1967 Mideast war.