Rabin Defends Closure of Schools, Urges Palestinians to Join Process

Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin on Monday defended Israel’s closure of West Bank chools as a way to reduce the possibility of deaths to Palestinian students.

Rabin, responding to a call from Secretary of State James Baker for Israel to reopen schools in the territories, said Israel gave the West Bankers “three chances” before finally closing their schools.

He spoke to reporters after meeting with Baker at the State Department.

Baker, in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s 30th annual policy conference, called on Israel to allow schools in the territories to reopen as part of a list of steps he said Israel could take to improve the climate and enhance the peace process.

But Rabin said, “Once schools are open, the confrontation between kids, schoolboys and girls and the military forces of Israel increase the number of casualties among the youngsters.”

“Instead of having school open and many young casualties,” Israel decided to “stop the schooling and to save casualties,” the defense minister said.

About 200,000 students in Gaza “continue to study,” he said. In June, those graduating from high school will be given examinations supervised by Egyptian educators, “the way that it happened in the past,” he said.

“Therefore, we are not talking about total closure of the schools,” he said.

Gaza schools remain open because Gazans, unlike West Bankers, do “not involve the schools” in the violence, he explained.

SOME SENSE ‘UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY’

Rabin said he had not seen the text of Baker’s speech, but understood that it was “comprehensive” in that it makes “requests from the Palestinians, requests from Israel.”

On the Israeli election concept for the territories, Rabin said the focus should not be that “we and the United States will agree about the details of the elections,” but on finding a Palestinian negotiating partner who, in principle, accepts the elections idea.

“I believe this is the key question today,” Rabin said. “All of the other issues are minor issues vis-a-vis how to begin the process. We learned that once the peace process starts, it has got its own momentum.”

Rabin said most of his meeting with Baker was spent discussing how to “bring about the consent of the Palestinians in the territories to join with us in negotiations.”

The defense minister seemed hopeful about finding Palestinians willing to join the process, even though he acknowledged that various Palestinian delegations have rejected the latest initiative.

When the Palestinians are in groups, they will not “say everything that they think. But I have sensed that some of them, if not many, realize that it is a unique opportunity,” he said.

Before the Baker meeting, Rabin met with Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and with the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force.

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