Palestinians Praise Sharon Offer

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, 2003/10/8
Palestinian leaders on Saturday welcomed Israeli offers to resume peace talks but said any negotiations must come with efforts to stop violence and halt Jewish settlement building.

A new round of meetings also depends in part on whether the Palestinians can complete formation of a new government in coming days. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, who is leading an emergency government with a one-month mandate, has until Tuesday to form a full Cabinet.

He has been unable to do so, mainly because of intense wrangling with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat over ministerial choices.

Legislators from Arafat's Fatah faction nominated a hard-liner, Rafiq al-Natche, to be parliament speaker, a position Qureia left vacant when he became prime minister. It's considered an important post because the speaker would become acting leader of the Palestinian Authority if something were to happen to Arafat.

New Israeli-Palestinian contacts would likely try to pick up the stalled U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which aims to end three years of fighting and create a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Progress on the first stages of the plan withered amid weeks of new fighting and the failure of both sides to meet their key obligations.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said earlier this week that he was willing to hold talks with Qureia, reversing previous Israeli suggestions that it would not deal with the new Palestinian prime minister because he was too close to Arafat. Both Israel and the United States have sought to sideline Arafat, believing he is closely linked to terrorism.

Qureia responded Saturday, saying that no meeting with Sharon was immediately forthcoming, but there were contacts between the two sides.

"We have not studied the issue of a meeting, but there are contacts with the Israelis," Qureia said. At the same time, Qureia is trying to restart talks with Hamas and other militant groups aimed at persuading them to stop suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis.

In addition to the debate over peace talks, Israelis are questioning the use of women in combat after the killings of two female sergeants by Palestinians and a study suggesting women are too weak for deployment.

The debate comes at a critical time as the military is stretched thin by three years of fighting against the Palestinians and the government tries to fill the gaps by calling up reserves. More women in combat could ease the burden.

It also strikes at the heart of Israeli society, since army service is compulsory for nearly all able 18-year-olds, and the military is often a launching pad for careers.

Concern over deployment of women was fueled by the Oct. 24 ambush of sergeants Sarit Shneor-Senior and Adi Osman at a remote army outpost that guards the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in the Gaza Strip.

One of the attackers walked to the soldiers' sleeping quarters, opened the door to one of the trailers and killed Osman, 19, in her sleep. A few moments later, Shneor-Senior, 20, opened the door to her trailer and was killed by the attacker. A male soldier also was killed.

Initial findings of the study commissioned by the commander of ground forces found, for instance, that most women are not able to lift the minimum amount required of combat soldiers, 110 pounds. It also said most women could not complete military treks, which typically involve carrying heavy gear, of more than 12 miles. Male soldiers can be required to march more than twice that distance.

The study has not yet been debated in the upper echelons of the army, but could prevent the eventual entrance of women into elite commando units.

Housing Minister Effie Eitam, a former general, called for female soldiers to be removed from conflict areas. "The ability of women to participate in intense combat ... is more limited," Eitam told the Yediot Ahronot newspaper.