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US Envoy Meets With Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas

By VOA News

U.S. Middle East envoy William Burns has told new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas that the creation of a Palestinian state is a top priority for the United States. Burns made the comment during Monday's talks on the so-called "roadmap" to peace with Israel that was released last week.

The meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah came one day after Burns discussed the peace plan with Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Burns has not met with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, whom U.S. officials have shunned since last June.

The U.S. envoy said Israelis and Palestinians both need to take practical steps if they want to advance the cause of peace. The American envoy said President Bush is strongly committed to working toward a two-state vision in which Israel and the Palestinians would live peacefully side-by-side. Following the meeting, Burns told reporters that, to reach that goal, the Palestinians must fight terrorism, and the Israelis must halt the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip

"On the Palestinian side, that means there is absolutely no substitute, no substitute for a decisive fight against terror and violence," said Burns. "And on the Israeli side, it also means taking practical steps to ease the suffering of Palestinians living under occupation, to stop settlement activity and renew a sense of dignity and hope."

Palestinian Militia Leader Receives 14 Life Sentences

By Ross Dunn (VOA-Jerusalem)

An Israeli court has sentenced a Palestinian militia leader to 14 life terms in jail plus 50 years for masterminding attacks that killed 14 Israelis. Nasser Awais, 33, is the most senior Palestinian to be convicted by an Israeli civil court since the current round of violence began in September 2000. He was the military commander and co-founder of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of Yasir Arafat's Fatah faction.

Awais was convicted in a Tel Aviv Court of having initiated, planned, organized and financed a series of terrorist operations. He is held responsible for deadly attacks against a restaurant in Tel Aviv, as well as two attacks on cities in northern Israel, one at a wedding hall in Hadera and the other at a hotel in Netanya. Fourteen people were killed in the attacks.

Prosecutors described him as being the deputy of jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who is currently on trial for allegedly orchestrating violent attacks against Israelis. Following his sentencing, Awais expressed no regrets, telling reporters in Hebrew that Palestinians needed to take certain actions to end Israeli military occupation.

Sharon Reportedly Turned Aside a Secret Syrian Appeal for Peace Talks

By Ha'aretz Service and Reuters

Responding to reports that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had quashed a detailed appeal by Syrian President Bashar Assad to resume peace talks immediately and without preconditions, aides to the prime minister confirmed Monday that there had been an initiative from Damascus prior to the Iraq war, but that on inspection "there was great doubt cast on its seriousness and on the nature of Syria's motives," Israel Radio said.

The Ma'ariv newspaper report said that contacts over Assad's proposal were held in Jordan, between the Syrian president's brother Maher, and former foreign ministry director-general Eytan Ben-Tzur.

The reports emerged as Syria urged the Bush administration to press Israel to trade all the land it captured in the 1967 Six Day war for peace, including the Golan Heights, taken from Syria. There were also contacts underway Monday for a summit between the leaders of Syria, Jordan and Egypt, Israel Radio reported.

Unidentified Israeli officials quoted by Ma'ariv described the contacts as having been "serious," with proposals raised regarding mutual steps toward resumption of negotiations. But Sharon was said to have believed that the initiative was aimed mainly at deflecting U.S. pressure over Assad's support of Saddam Hussein surrounding the war.

Sharon said in a recent interview that he gives preference to negotiations with the Palestinians over possible talks with Syria.

Last month, U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos brought Sharon a message from Assad. The prime minister said at the time that he was prepared for talks "without preconditions," a reference to negotiations between Syria and the previous Labor government of Ehud Barak, talks which broke down over Syrian demands for what it viewed as all of the land Israel captured from Damascus in the 1967 Six Day war.

Barak was reportedly prepared to trade the strategic Golan for peace, but stood firm when Bashar Assad's father Hafez, then president of Syria, demanded a swath of land along the Kinneret as well.

Remembrance Day, Independence Day

By & Ha'aretz

Israel began its annual two-day commemoration ceremonies of Remembrance Day and Independence Day Monday evening. A one-minute siren was sounded throughout the country at 8 p.m. in memory of the fallen soldiers in Israel's wars and those who fell as victims of Arab terrorism.

A two-minute siren will be sounded nationwide Tuesday morning at 11, at which time memorial ceremonies will take place at the country's 42 military cemeteries. Following the state ceremony for fallen IDF veterans at Mt. Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, a ceremony for terrorism victims will be held.

The number of terrorism victims in this past year, since last Independence Day, is 218, and over 5,500 people were wounded. The National Insurance Institute reported that some 3,000 people have been murdered in terrorist attacks since 1948. The total number of fallen soldiers: 21,540.

Independence Day celebrations will begin Tuesday night throughout the country. A religious and national holiday, it is a celebration of the renewal of the Jewish state in the Land of Israel, the birthplace of the Jewish people.

Security forces were placed on high security alert Monday for the two-day commemoration. Dozens of intelligence warnings were in effect, Israel Radio said, referring to indications of plans by militant organizations to stage terror attacks to coincide with the holiday.

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