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Arafat Cease-Fire Offer Raises Questions Over Timing - 2002-03-28

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat says he is ready to work on an immediate and unconditional ceasefire based on a plan put forth last year by U.S. CIA Director George Tenet. The announcement comes as Israeli leaders are considering how to retaliate for a suicide bombing Wednesday that claimed more than 20 victims.

Palestinian leader Arafat hastily called a news conference at his West Bank headquarters to say he is ready to implement the Tenet ceasefire plan without conditions. "I would like to reiterate our readiness to work for an immediate ceasefire," he said.

Mr. Arafat says he has informed U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni he accepts the Tenet ceasefire plan without alterations. "I have informed him we are ready to immediately begin implementation of the Tenet plan without any conditions and without prejudicing any of its articles," he added.

That puts into question Mr. Zinni's latest compromise version of the Tenet plan that responds to Israeli reservations about the original blueprint.

The so-called Tenet plan calls on Israel to withdraw its military from all Palestinian-controlled lands. But it also requires the Palestinian Authority to confiscate illegal weapons and prevent militant attacks against Israelis. A key dispute has been over the timing of the implementation.

A top aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he is skeptical about Mr. Arafat's commitment to end the bloodshed.

Israel had demanded the Palestinian leader declare a ceasefire publicly to his entire population. Mr. Arafat's statement on Thursday is not in itself a ceasefire declaration. It was made during a news conference in Ramallah that was broadcast later on Palestinian TV.

The Palestinian announcement comes a day after a suicide bomber killed 21 people at a Passover holiday celebration in the seaside resort of Netanya. It was the fourth deadly suicide bombing inside Israel in a week.

Israel has been considering how to retaliate for the terrorist attacks. Mr. Arafat has warned reporters Israel is aggressively preparing a military operation against the Palestinian population.

Even as Mr. Arafat was stating his readiness to work on a ceasefire, Palestinian gunmen infiltrated a Jewish settlement near the West Bank town of Nablus and shot dead three Israelis there.