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Arafat to blame for uprising in Mideast, Sharon insists

JERUSALEM — Insisting Israel won't be "put on trial," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon grudgingly met Sunday with a U.S.-led panel investigating Mideast violence and blamed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for ordering months of fighting.

Meanwhile, 20 Palestinians were injured in clashes with soldiers, and an Israeli driver was wounded by gunmen. An Israeli man visiting a West Bank town was briefly seized by Palestinian activists.

The panel, led by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, has been meeting with a wide range of Israelis and Palestinians, gathering information on the worst outbreak of fighting since the two sides launched peace negotiations in 1993.

The violence — which has killed 434 people — broke out last September after Sharon, then opposition leader, made a controversial visit to a disputed Jerusalem holy site.

But Sharon on Sunday insisted that he was not to blame, saying Arafat ordered the uprising.

"The full responsibility for the outbreak of violence and its persistence rests on Arafat," Sharon told the commission. "We know for sure that the security forces of the Palestinian Authority, including the presidential guard, Force 17, are directly involved in the recent terror activities."

The Israeli leader also made clear that he opposed the work of the commission, calling it "a historic mistake because no one has the right, no one, to put Israel on a world trial." Nonetheless, Sharon said he had no choice but to meet the commission, which was established before he took office earlier this month.

The commission is expected to complete its report on the violence in about a month. Though both sides have cooperated with it, neither is pleased with its mandate.

For the Palestinians, the commission does not go far enough. The Palestinians are pushing for greater international involvement, including a U.N. peacekeeping mission. The Israelis opposed any international inquiry and staunchly reject any proposed U.N. peacekeepers.

Mitchell, who also met Sunday with Israeli President Moshe Katsav, said his commission was "not a tribunal and we do not believe that anyone is on trial."

"We'll do the best we can to complete our task fairly and impartially," Mitchell said.

In violence Sunday, hundreds of Palestinian marchers near the West Bank town of Nablus stoned army vehicles, and Israeli troops responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. At least 20 Palestinians were hurt, hospitals in Nablus said.

Also, an Israeli motorist traveling near Nablus was shot and seriously wounded in the chest Sunday by suspected Palestinian attackers, the army said. The victim, a security officer for Jewish settlements in the northern West Bank, managed to drive to a nearby army base, and was evacuated to a hospital by helicopter.

In the southern Gaza Strip, the army said five grenades were thrown at Israeli soldiers stationed near the border with Egypt. Also, three mortars were fired at an army base in a nearby. No injuries were reported.

A synagogue was hit by Palestinian gunfire in the Jewish settlement of Neve Dekalim, also in the southern Gaza Strip, Israel radio reported.

In another incident, an Israeli man eating at a restaurant in the West Bank Palestinian town of Tulkarem was kidnapped by Palestinian activists, said the city's governor, Izzedine Al Sharif.

The activists, suspicious that the Israeli might be a spy, turned him over to Palestinian security forces, who then handed him over to the Israelis. The man, David Haim, was unharmed, and told Israel television he was not mistreated.

In six months of fighting, 434 people have been killed, including 356 Palestinians, 59 Israeli Jews and 19 others.

In advance of an Arab summit this week in neighboring Jordan, Sharon has instructed the army to respond to attacks in a measured fashion in order to avoid escalation of the conflict, said a government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Sharon is also seeking to avoid major confrontations between police and Israeli Arabs on Friday, when the Arabs hold their annual Land Day demonstrations to protest Israeli land expropriations.

Police will be instructed to keep the demonstrations from blocking main roads, but will also be told to avoid loss of life, the government official said.