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Arafat Calls for Halting Attacks Against Civilians - 2003-01-11

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is calling on Palestinian militants to halt attacks on Israeli civilians ahead of elections in Israel, which could change the course of more than two years of conflict.

A Palestinian Cabinet statement quoted Mr. Arafat as saying he rejected "all acts of violence that target Palestinian and Israeli civilians."

He said attacks against Israeli civilians have severely harmed the Palestinian cause in the international arena and in Israeli public opinion.

The Palestinian leader called on all Palestinians to practice self-restraint as the January 28 Israeli elections approach.

Mr. Arafat has repeatedly called on militant groups to halt suicide bombings and other attacks on Israeli civilians, but none of those appeals has yielded results.

Israel accuses him of involvement in funding and encouraging the violence, a charge he denies.

Palestinian officials have said that suicide bombings in a 27-month-old uprising against Israeli occupation have given Israel a pretext for pursuing even harsher military measures to end the violence, and broadened support for those in Israel who oppose Palestinian statehood. The Palestinian leader's comments come as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is facing corruption charges in a scandal, which has severely eroded support for his Likud party.

Likud had been expected to win 41 seats in the parliamentary elections. But that was before allegations emerged this week that Mr. Sharon had accepted an illegal $1.5-million foreign loan to pay back unauthorized 1999 campaign contributions.

Now, the latest polls show Likud winning as few as 27 seats, just a few seats ahead of the 24 that chief rival, Labor, is expected to win.

Such a narrow victory would likely force Likud either into alliances with the small, right-wing religious parties, which oppose a settlement with the Palestinians, or leave it vulnerable to pressure from opposition leader Amram Mitzna, who wants an immediate resumption of peace talks.