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Israeli Threat to Raid Territories Could Doom Talks, Palestinians Say

November 01, 2000|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Israel's threat to strike at Palestinian gunmen and those who command them, even in Palestinian-controlled territories, marks a dangerous escalation of hostility that could end any hope of restarting peace negotiations, Palestinian officials warned Tuesday.

The day after Israeli helicopter gunships fired on security and political offices of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction in three towns, there were widespread clashes in the territories, as there have been nearly every day for more than a month. The fiercest fighting was in the Gaza Strip, where Israel closed the Palestinian international airport for what it said were security reasons.

Four Palestinians were shot dead and dozens more were wounded in fighting that lasted all day near the Israeli-controlled Karni crossing in Gaza. Israel deployed tanks and armored personnel carriers to open a road, blocked by hundreds of Palestinians, to the tiny Jewish settlement of Netzarim. A reporter for CNN, Ben Wedeman, 41, was caught in cross-fire and shot while covering the fighting. He was reported to be in stable condition.

More than 140 people have been killed in the violence, most of them Palestinians, and thousands have been injured.

As the bloodshed continued and the rhetoric heated up on both sides, Palestinian and Israeli officials acknowledged the need to eventually return to some sort of peace talks. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak gave a green light to veteran peace negotiator Shimon Peres, minister of regional affairs, to meet with Arafat. Peres' office said that meeting could take place as early as today in Bethlehem and would focus on Israel's demand that the violence be curbed.

But in the Gazan town of Khan Yunis on Tuesday morning, Arafat sounded defiant before touring the ruined offices of his elite Force 17 guard unit, hit by Israeli rockets Monday night.

"All these things cannot shake one eyelash from the eyelashes of a Palestinian child holding a Palestinian stone to defend holy Jerusalem," he said. "And whoever dislikes it, let him come and drink the sea of Gaza."

Behind such declarations is the understanding on both sides that the rules of fighting are changing in ways that could prevent any return to the negotiating table.

If Israel enters Palestinian-controlled territory, then the Palestinians will feel free to carry out attacks inside Israel proper, warned Jibril Rajoub, Palestinian security chief in the West Bank.

"We believe that the events of last night were a new stage in Israeli escalation," said Ahmed Korei, speaker of the Palestinian parliament and an architect of the 1993 Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. "The shelling of Fatah offices is shooting the last bullet into the peace process."

Any new negotiations must abandon the bilateral framework, Korei said, and he called for an international conference that would include the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, Russia, China and Arab nations as well as Israel and the Palestinians.

But Israel is no longer talking publicly about negotiating frameworks or formulas. Instead, its prime minister is scrambling to put together a viable political coalition and its army is hunkering down for a long-term conflict that many believe will resemble the grinding war Israel waged in southern Lebanon against Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim militia, before withdrawing its troops in May.

Just hours before Monday's attacks on Arafat's offices in Khan Yunis and the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Nablus, the Israeli army said it was changing tactics. No longer would it refrain from pursuing gunmen who fire on troops, army outposts, settlements and cars in the territories at night, it said.

The rocket attacks were "intended to signal to the Palestinian Authority that we can hit nearly whomever we want, whenever we want and wherever," said Col. Yaakov Zigdon, commander of the army's central command. Short bursts of machine-gun fire served as warning before the helicopters fired rockets into the buildings, which were empty.

Speaking to a gathering of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem on Tuesday night, Barak said he had no illusions "that the violence forced upon us will stop following the [Israel Defense Forces'] action last night. But I also have no doubt that the Palestinian Authority understands that the long arm of the IDF can be even more painful and that under no circumstances will Israel accept attacks on its soldiers and citizens."

The army said it will use intelligence reports to pinpoint militiamen and attack them before they can launch operations. Special units such as Duvdevan, an undercover squad whose members often dress as Arabs, will be used, and units might mount roadside ambushes to capture wanted gunmen, said Col. Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for the army.

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