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CRISIS IN THE MIDEAST

Barak, Arafat Pledge to Push for Mideast Truce, but Clashes Go On

October 18, 2000|NORMAN KEMPSTER and TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt — Concluding a tense summit born of desperation, Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed Tuesday to urge an end to the bloodshed that has convulsed their region.

Despite these pledges to step back from the brink, however, violence raged again Tuesday in the Holy Land and claimed more victims.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who once vowed to make lasting peace but now cannot conceal their mutual animosity, offered their commitments separately to President Clinton, who led the emergency meeting at this Red Sea resort. Barak and Arafat did not address each other publicly. Nor did they shake hands.

Clinton and other U.S. officials said the agreement, hammered out during angry, nearly round-the-clock sessions that stretched over more than 24 hours, should finally halt the current Palestinian uprising and the often-repressive steps Israel has used to contain it. But there was scant evidence Tuesday that the cycle of violence was ending.

As news of the Sharm el Sheik agreement began to filter through the West Bank and Gaza Strip, demonstrators clashed with Israeli forces, marched against surrendering to Israeli demands and waged gun battles on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

A Palestinian police officer was killed in Gaza, and a Palestinian civilian was shot to death near the West Bank town of Nablus. Three members of Israeli security forces were wounded.

The head of militias belonging to Arafat's Fatah political movement, Marwan Barghouti, as well as two other regional Fatah leaders and the heads of militant Islamic groups vowed Tuesday night that the fight would go on.

More than 100 people, nearly all Palestinian or Israeli Arabs, have been killed and thousands injured in nearly three weeks of street fighting that many Palestinians now regard as their war for independence. The unrest has threatened regional stability by spawning violent demonstrations throughout the Arab world and has all but killed a 7-year-old peace process and the trust it had built.

In the understanding announced Tuesday, Barak and Arafat agreed to publicly urge an end to violence, take concrete steps to restore calm and then assess in two weeks whether a basis exists for resuming peace talks aimed at resolving the 52-year-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

"We have made important commitments here today against a backdrop of tragedy and crisis," Clinton said as he presided over a curt ceremony to read out the agreement. "Repairing the damage will take time and great effort by all of us."

The concluding statement fell short of even minimal hopes for the summit, and there was widespread skepticism that it will alleviate the deadly tensions. The agreement was not put into writing and was not signed by anybody, and it will undoubtedly be a hard sell at home for Barak and, especially, Arafat.

Barak issued a vaguely worded call late Tuesday to end the violence and added that "Israel intends to implement the understandings which have been drawn up." In a later statement, Arafat said: "Our people will not initiate violence, but our people were the victims of this violence."

Barak stressed that the deal will work only if the Palestinians live up to it. He left little doubt that unless the Arab riots are truly over, Israel will not end its military crackdown. He said Israel will begin to pull back its troops after the West Bank and Gaza have been quiet for at least 48 hours.

"The real test of all these understandings is the implementation," he told a news conference shortly after the summit ended.

A Host of Participants Await Implementation

That sentiment was echoed by Arafat, speaking to reporters upon his return to Gaza City, and by a host of diplomats involved in the negotiations.

"We expect an accurate and honest implementation of what was agreed upon," Arafat said.

As the summit ended, more than 12 hours later than planned, Clinton outlined a three-step procedure: ending the Palestinian riots and Israel's military response, creating a U.S.-controlled fact-finding committee to investigate the causes of the crisis and resuming the peace negotiations that were interrupted and almost obliterated by the violence.

Clinton's statement, and a similar one by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, constitute the record of the unwritten bargain. Barak and Arafat sat stone-faced as Clinton read the summary, acquiescing to its accuracy by their failure to object.

"Both sides have agreed to issue public statements unequivocally calling for an end to the violence," Clinton said. "Both sides will act immediately to return the situation to that which existed prior to the current crisis."

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