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Thursday November 30, 2000

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Mideast Travel Warning Under Review

By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - A 7-week-old warning to Americans to avoid Israel and the Palestinian areas will be lifted quickly once U.S. citizens are no longer at risk, the State Department said yesterday.

The department warned Americans on Oct. 12 to avoid travel to Israel because of "violent clashes and confrontations" throughout the West Bank and Gaza, as well as in Israel. A subsequent warning dated Oct. 24 stressed the possibility of terror attacks and warned Americans to avoid buses, shopping areas and bus stops, all bombing targets in the past.

Fighting and guerrilla attacks have continued throughout, taking the lives of almost 300 people, mostly Palestinians.

A lull in recent days, attributed to the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and to cool, rainy

weather, was interrupted yesterday with more violence, with the shooting deaths of an

Israeli motorist in an ambush and an undisclosed number of Palestinians shot as they tried to cut through a border fence.

Tourism is a major source of income for Israel, and Americans are regular travelers to the Jewish state. More than two months of conflict with the Palestinians continue to inflict damage on Israel's economy.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told around two dozen American Jewish leaders in a telephone hookup Tuesday that the travel warning was under review, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, told a reporter afterward.

Yesterday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, "The imperative need

to end the cycle of violence is still there."

The political and economic impact of the U.S. warning against travel to Israel cannot be considered, Boucher said.

"What is considered on these things is our assessment of the safety and security of U.S. citizens who are traveling in these areas. And that's the sole criterion for the issuance of these warnings," Boucher said.

If the security situation changes for Americans, he said, "then we will reflect those as soon as possible in our travel warnings."

Boucher added: "It depends on the situation on the ground. If it's safer for Americans, we will reflect that in our travel advice."

Meanwhile, American support for Israel came under attack in a session sponsored by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Salman Abu Sitta, a former member of the Palestine National Council, said the United States supports Israel "blindly and unquestioningly" as Israel defies international opinion by occupying land that rightfully belongs to Palestinians.

Sitta, who lives in Kuwait, said 5.25 million Palestinians who lived in 530 towns and villages that make up 92 percent of Israel were forced from their homes half a century ago by "a foreign minority descending on them from as far away as New York and Moscow, backed by Western money.

"This is the largest ethnic cleansing operation in history," Sitta said.

"To expel Palestinians is a war crime, to prevent their return is a war crime," he said at the National Press Club.

The Palestinian refugee question was among the main hurdles that blocked agreement between Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat negotiations at Camp David that President Clinton sponsored last July.

"There can be no peace in the Middle East without the return of the refugees," Sitta said.

Introducing Sitta, the chairman of the American-Arab committee, Ziad Asali, noted yesterday was the 53rd anniversary of the vote by the U.N. General Assembly to partition Palestine, which led to the birth of Israel the following May. He said the vote also set in motion "the destruction of Palestinian society."

All the Palestinians who left Israel are entitled by right to return to their former homes and get their property back, Asali said.