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Bush: Militants Still Want to Wreck Mideast Peace Process

By Paula Wolfson (VOA-White House)

President George W. Bush said Tuesday that he was pleased with the latest developments in the Middle East but warned there are still militant groups that want to wreck the peace process.

Although Bush's reaction to recent events in the Middle East is generally upbeat, he added that it was optimism mixed with a strong dose of realism.

"I am optimistic, but I also recognize the nature of the Middle East," said Bush. "I mean there are people there who still hate. They hate Israel. They hate the idea of peace. They can't stand the thought of a peaceful state existing side by side with Israel. And they are willing to - may be willing to - attack. And what we must continue to do is to reject that kind of thought."

During a brief session with reporters, Bush made specific mention of the Palestinian militant group Hamas. "Hamas is not a peaceful organization when they are willing to blow people up and destroy innocent life."

Hamas recently agreed to a three-month suspension of hostilities with Israel. The Bush administration has welcomed the ceasefire as an important step. But the president made clear once again that he believes there will not be peace in the region until Hamas and similar groups are dismantled. "Progress will be ultimately made when the world, particularly that part of the world, firmly and finally rejects terrorist activities."

Palestinians Take Over Security in Bethlehem

By VOA News

Israeli forces have left the West Bank city of Bethlehem and turned over security control to the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian police re-entered Bethlehem's streets Wednesday, shortly after the last Israeli troops on patrol moved to the city's outskirts.

Under a deal finalized Tuesday, Israeli troops will keep a checkpoint on the main road leading into Bethlehem, and control the area around a religious site, Rachel's Tomb. But Israeli forces will no longer be allowed to enter the city and arrest militants as they have often done in the past. The handover is seen as another boost for the internationally backed "road map" plan for Middle East peace. On Sunday, Israeli and Palestinian officials carried out a similar transfer of security control in the northern Gaza Strip.

Israel Radio quoted a senior Israel Defense Forces officer as saying the 33-month Palestinian uprising may be over. The unidentified officer says Israel can consider itself the winner of the conflict, and that Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas appears to understand that terrorism is a mistake.

The United States said it would resume direct economic aid to the Palestinian Authority. Jeffrey Feltman, the acting U.S. consul-general in Arab East Jerusalem, said Washington would give $30 million to rebuild infrastructure damaged by Israeli military actions.

Feltman said the aid goes "hand in hand" with what he called the Palestinian Authority's "aggressive pursuit of an ambitious reform agenda." For years, the United States has avoided giving money to the Palestinian Authority and long-time Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. Instead, Washington channeled its assistance to the Palestinians through private groups and the United Nations.

Abbas: Truce Will Fail if Israel Does Not Free Prisoners

By Ha'aretz and Reuters

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas warned Wednesday that the three-month truce announced by militants Sunday would collapse if Israel failed to free a significant number of Palestinian prisoners. "If we wait for three months without any release of the prisoners, the ceasefire will break down. If they assassinate anybody... it will collapse," Abbas told Reuters in an interview from his Ramallah office.

The prime minister also made a tough pledge to jail militants who violate the truce, saying, "We will crack down on them." I think the Palestinian people will accept this because the Palestinian people accepted the truce and they are keen to keep it... So from now on anybody, any faction, any party which violates it - we will put them in prison."

Abbas said he was rebuilding the decimated Palestinian security forces and expected them to be strong enough to combat truce violators in about a month.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told a cabinet meeting earlier in the day that Israel had not yet compiled a list of Palestinian prisoners to be released. Palestinian sources said Wednesday, however, that Israel was set to release 20 Palestinian prisoners from Ofer Prison, north of Jerusalem. The sources told Israel Radio that 10 of the 20 were administrative prisoners, while the prison terms of the other ten were almost over, Israel Radio reported.

Israel to Fight for U.S. Visa Exemption

By Ha'aretz

Israel has launched a diplomatic offensive to persuade the United States to exempt Israelis from requiring a visa to enter the country. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom raised the issue with Secretary of State Colin Powell two weeks ago and has ordered the ministry's North America desk to prepare a plan of action. Powell advised Shalom to exploit Israel's good relations with Congress in the case.

Shalom's initiative follows new regulations that became effective on Tuesday, making it much harder to obtain a visa. Under the new rules, prompted by the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and subsequent fierce domestic criticism of America's visa procedures, all Israelis between the ages of 16 and 60 must have a personal interview with an American official before getting a visa.

This is expected to create huge delays - travel agents predict up to several months - since the embassy has received no extra funding and hired no additional staff to carry out this task. Applications can no longer be made directly to the embassy or consulate but must be handled by a registered travel agent. The agent not only provides the forms and submits them to the embassy, but it is the agent rather than the applicant whom the embassy informs of the applicant's interview date. When the applicant arrives for the interview, he will have to leave his passport with the embassy until it reaches a decision on the application, and at some point in the future, fingerprinting will also be required.

Contrary to popular myth, the U.S. is not strict about issuing visas to Israelis because it fears their staying on in the country illegally. According to the most recent report of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, of about one million people picked up for visa violations in the year after 9/11, only 350 were Israelis, although 316,000 Israelis entered the country legally that year, including tourists, businessmen, students, legal workers and government officials. About 4,000 Israelis get green cards for permanent residence every year, half of them after marrying Americans.

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