Foreign Affairs Minister Phil Goff has been criticised for meeting and holding hands with the Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

Mr Goff met the besieged Mr Arafat in his compound in Ramallah on the West Bank.

Later, Mr Goff 's party was caught up in a rock-throwing incident - and had a close encounter with an Israeli tank.

Act leader Richard Prebble asked what message Mr Goff was trying to send by meeting a corrupt, unelected leader who refused to renounce terrorism.

"After September 11, world opinion has turned against terrorism and yet our Foreign Minister has not only met Yasser Arafat but also held his hand," Mr Prebble said.

National's foreign affairs spokesman, Wayne Mapp, also wondered what Mr Goff hoped to achieve with his visit.

"It's simply not good enough for Mr Goff to ignore appeals from the Israeli Government not to meet with Yasser Arafat, when the peace process is so delicately poised," Dr Mapp said.

"The Government must now consider what can be done to repair the damage ... the time for photo opportunities is over."

Mr Goff said the Palestinian President was "very much a man under siege". The president had been a virtual prisoner at the compound for nearly three years.

Earlier, Mr Goff met Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, Mr Arafat, and members of the Palestinian Cabinet.

"Abu Mazen struck me as a sound, moderate, experienced person who maybe is the key to the process," Mr Goff said.

The Palestine PM is seen by Israel as moderate and trustworthy. But after meeting both leaders, Mr Goff said he still believed Mr Arafat should be kept "inside the tent" and part of the peace process because of his iconic status with the Palestinian people.

After the meetings Mr Goff, travelling in United Nations vehicles in the West Bank town of Nablus, had been surrounded by Palestinian children who moved between the cars of the minister's party, hurling rocks at nearby Israeli troops.

"They [the kids] appeared from nowhere, dashing in and out of our cars hurling rocks at Israeli military vehicles that were driving by," he said.

"It was a bizarre experience - these were kids of 10 or 11 who were utterly unconcerned about their safety."

Mr Goff said the incident "indicates the depth of feeling and hatred that exists in the area. This is the daily process of life in the West Bank townships".

"Our cars then turned the next corner and we were facing an Israeli tank, which swivelled its turret around and we were staring down the barrel of a tank gun.

"I have got to say that was one of the less easy feelings of my life."

The incident had highlighted that, after all the meetings, that was the reality of life on the West Bank, he said.

"If anything, it just reinforced the absolute commitment that the whole of the international community has to make to try to find a way to replace this violence with the peace process."

At the meetings with the Palestinian political leaders, Mr Goff had repeated an offer of providing New Zealand peacekeepers, which he had also earlier made to Israeli leaders. He said the offer had been welcomed by all he spoke to.

- NZPA

Herald Feature: The Middle East

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