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Arafat Unimpressed by Israeli Retreat

A sudden and unexpected Israeli retreat from occupied Palestinian terrorities in the West Bank on Thursday made for a rare sight, but Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat questioned Israel's motives.

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Now it's the tanks' turn to flee

In the first sign of let-up to the spiralling violence of the past months, Israeli tanks and troop were seen withdrawing from Ramallah, site of Arafat's West Bank headquarters, in a late evening operation that began Thursday and lasted well into the night.

The mood in Ramallah was a celebratory one, as jubilant Palestinians fired volleys in the air and whoops of joy rang out in the night air.

Israeli troops have also pulled out of the cities of Tulkarm and Qalqilya and the Gaza strip refugee camp of Al Boureij. But troops are still sticking to their positions in Palestinian lands outside the West Bank cities of Bethlehem, Nablus, Jenin and Hebron.

The move marks the end of Israel's brief reoccupation of Arafat's West Bank base and its biggest ground military offensive in almost 20 years.

The Israelis have described the troop recall as a goodwill gesture, planned to coincide with the visit of US envoy Anthony Zinni to the region.

Arafat mistrustful of the move

Jassir Arafat

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during an interview with CNN satellite channel at his office in the West Bank town of Ramallah Thursday Feb. 21, 2002. CNN interviewed Arafat after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon speech addressing the current situation with the Palestinians, Sharon said that he will not be dragged into war and that he would implement a Cabinet decision to set up buffer zones to give Israelis additional security. (AP Photo/Hussein Hussein)

But despite the landmark turnaround in the status-quo, Palestinian President Arafat is apparently far from convinced.

He condemned the phased-out withdrawal of Israeli troops as a mere "propaganda trick".

In an interview with Reuters he indicated that Israel was only putting up a show for the US envoy by hastily pulling out of Palestinian cities and villages before his arrival.

Arafat also voiced fears that the Israeli offensive in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would ruin the peace plan floated by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah Abdullah.

The prince had suggested that Arab countries should agree to a peace treaty with Israel, if Israel on its part completely pulled out of Palestinian territories in the Gaza strip, the West Bank and the Syrian Golan-Heights that it had occupied during the war in 1967.

Zinni has a tough brief

US-Sondervermittler Anthony Zinni

U.S Envoy Anthony Zinni arrives at the Ben Gurion International airport in Tel Aviv Thursday Jan. 3, 2002. Zinni will be trying to implement the truce deal drafted last year by CIA Chief George Tenet, calling for Israel to stay out of Palestinian controlled areas and lift travel restrictions on Palestinians. (AP Photo/HO)

Meanwhile the US envoy on Thursday began his third trip to the Middle East since November to seek implementation of a US-brokered cease-fire and the truce-to-talks Mitchell Plan drawn up by an international committee under former US senator George Mitchell.

But this time Zinni has a tougher brief with the US now back-tracking on its formerly soft stance towards Israel.

America has now demanded that Israel unconditionally withdraw from the autonomous Palestinian territories. In Washington, Department of State spokesman Richard Boucher said that this step would improve the preconditions for Zinni's peace mission.

Boucher also repeated a familiar appeal to Arafat to rein in Palestinian militants and do more to end the violence.

Talking peace amid violence

Sharon

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

Zinni was given a cordial welcome by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who said his main effort was to achieve a cease-fire, but not at the expense of Israeli security.

Yet even as they talked, violence exploded in the region. Palestinian militants blew up an Israeli Merkava-3 tank in the Gaza strip on Thursday, killing three soldiers. Earlier six Palestinians were killed in separate incidents elsewhere on the West Bank.

Amid this backdrop of violence, Zinni will be seeking to persuade the two sides to resume security co-operation and adopt confidence building measures. Zinni will stay in the region for as long as he can report progress.

He was scheduled to meet Arafat later on Friday.

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