TEL AVIV – Under sharp pressure from growing protests in Israel and from European and neighboring Arab governments, the government of Ariel Sharon announced some relief for the Palestinian population on the occasion of the three-day Muslim Eid-el-Adha feast of sacrifice, which began Feb. 22.

However, Israeli media generally characterized Sharon’s Feb. 21 “address to the nation” as a torrent of empty phrases and overbearing self-praise about Israel’s five decades of development into an economically strong democratic society with a modern army, which is, thanks to the assistance of the “U.S. friends,” superior to all armies of the Arab world combined.

Sharon’s only practical step was his project to unilaterally establish a 200-km. “buffer zone” separating Palestine from Israel in the occupied West Bank, allegedly to protect Israel from infiltration by “Palestinian terrorists.” This zone, to cost at least $1 billion, is to be equipped with high walls, barbed wire and electric high-tension fences.

This alleged “defensive line” will be far within the occupied territories. Settlements with more than 80 percent of the settlers would be either within Israel’s future borders, or in this buffer zone. Sharon said nothing about limiting new settlements or the expansion of existing ones.

This proposed buffer zone is widely denounced in Israeli media as a very costly kind of Don Quixote war against windmills, and a “buffer between Sharon and any hope for peace.”

Gush-Shalom said it is reminiscent of “the disastrous security zone in Southern Lebanon” created by Sharon in the wake of the 1982 Lebanon invasion, which resulted in nearly two decades of futile guerrilla war with almost a thousand Israeli army personnel among its victims.

The official Palestine Media Center rejected this unilateral design as a new “racist design to convert Palestinian population centers into separated prison wards and concentration camps.” Arafat’s Media Advisor Nabil Abu Rudeineh said Sharon’s proposed buffer zones aim to destroy any hope for a peace process.

“It is dangerous for Sharon to choose the military solution as a strategic option, which lays behind his mine-field buffer zone design,” he added.

For the Eid-el-Adha holiday, some roadblocks throughout the occupied West Bank were said to be cancelled, the occupation army’s infiltration into Palestinian administered areas were to be withdrawn and the towns encircled from outside. The extra-juridical assassinations were to be suspended for some time.

However, promises are one side of Sharon’s character, but not keeping them is another. During the three days of the “truce,” Israeli troops killed at least 13 Palestinians, some of them at roadblocks, others in clashes in the Gaza Strip, while one Israeli soldier and one Jewish settler were shot dead.

One Palestinian woman, on her way to hospital to give birth, was shot and wounded at a roadblock; the husband of another woman in labor, on her way to the hospital, was killed by shots fired at their car, after they had been checked and allowed to proceed. The woman, also wounded, arrived at the hospital and delivered a now fatherless daughter.

On top of all this came the shameful Sharon “security cabinet” decision to ease the restrictions that kept Palestinian President Arafat practically imprisoned in his Ramallah residence and office headquarters. Now he is allowed to move within the boundaries of that city. The decision practically gives Sharon and defense minister Ben-Elieser the sole right to decide whether and when Arafat may leave Ramallah. The Israeli tanks, hitherto stationed less than 100 yards from Arafat’s office, were removed to positions outside the city.

The Palestinian officials responded with indignation. PNA Minister and chief negotiator Saeb Erekat called the decision “shameful and unacceptable,” and “a clear message that the Sharon government wants neither a cease-fire, nor calm and peace negotiations.”

During these fateful days, Saudi crown prince Abdullah published his peace plan, which proposes not to wait, as Sharon demands, for a complete cease-fire, but to immediately start implementing the recommendations of two international commissions headed by CIA Director George Tenet and former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell. The plan has achieved much positive attention in Washington and the European and Asian capitals. Sharon initially rejected the Saudi proposals as irrelevant, but now, pressed by the growing international consensus and seemingly pushed by his U.S. advisers, he said he would be glad to welcome Crown Prince Abdullah in Jerusalem, to confer with him about his initiative.