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Israel's decision to suspend implementation of the Gaza-Bethlehem First proposal does not mean that the plan has failed. Instead, it means "wasted time," Palestinian Authority Interior Minister Abdel Razak Yehiyeh declared yesterday in television interviews.

Despite bitterness felt by the PA leadership in response to the Israeli decision, Yehiyeh insisted that the Bethlehem-Gaza plan will be carried out in the end. Yehiyeh, who has tried to persuade extremist Palestinian groups to refrain from terror attacks, added that members of the Palestinian leadership intend to continue to meet with Israeli officials.

Defense officials said that despite the decision not to withdraw IDF troops from Hebron, Israel has no intention of freezing the Gaza-Bethlehem plan. The agreement does not set out a timetable for the continuation of Israel's steps, the officials noted. They added that Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer expects the Palestinians to take firm steps against terror in the Gaza Strip. "The continuation of Israeli steps, including the re-deployment of troops in Hebron, will be considered in light of Palestinian efforts to reduce terror," they said.

Yehiyeh's positive messages yesterday appeared to contradict statements made by Mohammed Dahlan, currently PA Chairman Yasser Arafat's security adviser.

Dahlan, who was one of the negotiators in the talks which led to the Bethlehem-Gaza First proposal, has in recent days accused Israel of reneging on the agreement. Dahlan has said that he doubts Israel seriously intends to bring about a breakthrough via the Bethlehem-Gaza plan.

Though Dahlan and PA officials continue to express doubts, several Palestinian commentators said yesterday that the PA, and Arafat as its head, will in the end have no choice but to abide by terms of the Bethlehem-Gaza plan. Arafat and his PA associates have no other option, the commentators stressed.

Several Palestinian groups including Fatah, have criticized the Bethlehem-Gaza understandings. The PA leadership had hoped that it could allay the suspicions of these detractors by furnishing "proof" of progress; but the IDF's, and Ben-Eliezer's, announcement of the plan's freeze has dashed these hopes.

In an interview yesterday with Al Jazeera television Yehiyeh tried to clarify the message he sent last week to militant Palestinian organizations. He stressed that he did not issue "demands" to these groups; instead, he merely stated his "position."

The National-Islamic Monitoring Committee, whose members include the PLO and various Islamic groups, will continue to hold meetings to draft a national platform and create a united Palestinian leadership.

Yesterday, a senior Hamas member in the Gaza Strip, Ismael Abu Haniah, announced that 13 Palestinian organizations have been meeting to "attain an agreement that promotes the Palestinian national interest, and unifies the ranks."