JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accused Yasser Arafat's bodyguard unit of carrying out terrorist attacks against Israel and said Sunday it was not possible to hold peace talks with the Palestinian leader in the current climate of violence.
Sharon, who has been in office less than a week, had been restrained and diplomatic when speaking of his longtime rival, and had held out the possibility of an early meeting. But in an interview with the Fox News Channel, the new Israeli leader was sharply critical of Arafat and said no talks were planned.
"Most of the terrorist acts at the present time are carried out by Palestinian armed forces, security services and even the (forces) closest to Arafat, that is, what you call Force 17, the presidential guard," Sharon said.
Sharon said Arafat was in control of the Palestinian security forces and could also crack down on Palestinian militants if he wished.
"But Arafat never took any preventive steps against the infrastructure of the terrorist organizations," Sharon added.
Sharon did not cite any specific attacks. However, Israeli soldiers and settlers have been frequent targets for gunmen in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and the army has often linked the shootings to Palestinian security forces. Israel has also been hit by multiple bombings, though militant Islamic groups such as Hamas have claimed responsibility in several instances.
The comments came a day after Arafat told the Palestinian parliament that he was ready to resume peace talks. However, he was also quoted in the Saudi Arabian newspaper Okaz as saying that the Palestinian uprising, or intefadeh, "will continue."
Arafat also reiterated the Palestinian demand that peace talks must start where they left off under the previous Israeli premier, Ehud Barak.
Arafat's Fatah movement distributed leaflets Sunday calling for nationwide protest marches on Monday. "The criminal Sharon should learn from his predecessor Barak," the leaflets said. "In the end, Barak failed and the intefadeh remained."
Sharon says he is not bound by Barak's offer, which he regards as too generous, and insists that no peace negotiations will take place until calm is restored. "It's impossible to conduct the negotiations under the pressure of fire and terror and nonstop violence," Sharon said in the television interview.
He also expressed disappointment that Arafat didn't use the speech Saturday to call for an end to the violence, which has claimed more than 420 lives since it erupted in September.
Aides to Sharon and Arafat have been holding behind-the-scenes contacts, though they are not dealing directly with renewing negotiations, said the director of Sharon's office.
"There are contacts all the time regarding other things. It is important that there are channels of communication all the time," Uri Shani, head of the prime minister's bureau told Israel's army radio.
Palestinian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed there was contact between the sides.
Both Sharon and Arafat have important meetings on their calendars this month that appear likely to precede any face-to-face talks.
Sharon said he did not expect to meet with Arafat before he visits with President Bush in Washington on March 20, and Arafat is planning to attend a meeting of the Arab League, also later this month.
Meanwhile, Israel's army tightened its blockade Sunday on the West Bank city of Ramallah as part of its security closure on Palestinian areas that has been imposed to varying degrees since the beginning of the hostilities.
Ramallah, in the hills north of Jerusalem, has been a hotbed of activity in the Palestinian uprising, and the army said it was focusing its crackdown on the city.
The army also announced the arrests of four Palestinians suspected of carrying out attacks against Israelis.
Another suspected Palestinian militant, 23-year-old Ibrahim Ali Dirawi, who was arrested March 1 in the Gaza Strip, has acknowledged taking part in five attacks since December, Israeli security sources said.
The sources said Dirawi was a member of the militant Islamic group Hamas, and his information pointed to an increase in the strength of Hamas in Gaza.
In this week's edition of Newsweek magazine, Sharon dismissed reports that Israel would consider reoccupying Palestinian-controlled areas if the unrest continued.
"Areas that were given to the Palestinians — there the situation is irreversible, and I don't think we have to re-enter," Sharon said in the interview.
To date, 424 people have been killed in the violence that broke out in late September, including 348 Palestinians, 57 Israeli Jews and 19 others.