JERUSALEM — British Prime Minister Tony Blair shuttled between Israelis and Palestinians on Thursday in a bid to encourage them to end more than a year of fighting--even as the killing continued. There were no signs that either side had changed its well-hardened position.
Scarcely two hours before Blair's arrival here from Jordan, Israeli helicopters fired missiles into a taxicab near the West Bank town of Tulkarm, killing two suspected Palestinian militants and wounding the driver. It was the second day of a spate of so-called targeted killings, a policy that has drawn condemnation but one that Israel defends as self-defense.
Blair is in the Middle East to drum up support for the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. U.S. and British officials believe that a halt in Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed is critical to the success of the broader war effort.
But Blair is coming up against the blunt realities of the region. After a lecture from the Syrian president on the definition of terrorism the day before, the prime minister on Thursday heard from both the Israelis and Palestinians that the endless wave of shootings, bombings and killings was the other side's fault.
"This cycle of bloodshed has to stop," Blair said, calling for a prompt return to dialogue and the sidelining of extremists. In public and private remarks, he urged Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to ease restrictions on Palestinians and withdraw his forces from Palestinian territory, and he urged Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to arrest suspected terrorists.
"What you must understand," Blair added in what he said was a message to both Israelis and Palestinians, "is the world does want this [peace] process to succeed. It understands not just the pain and the grief that you've gone through here, but it understands the threat to the stability and security of the world" if the conflict is not resolved.
Speaking alongside Blair in Jerusalem, Sharon insisted that Israel will not negotiate with the Palestinians under fire and again rebuffed demands that he immediately pull his troops out of Palestinian territory.
Sharon said he was putting together a team to lead eventual negotiations with the Palestinians and said he is willing to make "painful concessions" in the interest of lasting peace. But he made it clear that no talks will be held until Arafat silences the guns on his side.
"There will be no compromise when it comes to the security of the residents and citizens of Israel," Sharon said. "We will continue to apply our right of self-defense."
Blair reiterated that his government disapproves of targeted killings, which the Palestinians and many human rights groups see as extrajudicial assassination, and he insisted that the tactics be measured and conform to international law. But Blair's criticism was muted; he said he understands "the pressures that Prime Minister Sharon is under--and the position of the Israeli people who have seen their citizens killed by terrorist acts."
Sharon said the two Palestinians killed Thursday were on their way to commit a suicide bombing that would have claimed many Israeli lives and further delayed any resumption of truce talks.
In a coordinated land and air operation, Israeli Apache helicopters blasted the taxi near Tulkarm on Thursday morning. The two men killed were identified by Israeli security sources as members of the radical Islamic movement Hamas. One of the bodies was burned beyond recognition inside the car, and the second was found in a nearby field, legs and arms severed, suggesting that the man had been hit by a missile after leaving the car, doctors at the Tulkarm hospital said.
The driver was badly wounded, and he and a third passenger were held by Israeli ground forces who have taken up position around Tulkarm, one of four Palestinian cities still under Israeli siege after the Oct. 17 assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister.
One of the dead men, Yasser Asida, had been arrested by the Palestinian Authority in 1998 in the killing of two Jewish settlers, but he was released in October 2000 at the start of the intifada, according to Israeli sources.
After Thursday's slayings, Israeli authorities relaxed a high alert that had been in force in central Israel for several days warning of an imminent terror attack.
Also Thursday, Israeli special forces raided the West Bank village of Beit Iba, near Nablus, and seized two Palestinians. One was accused by Israel of belonging to Hamas. Later Thursday in a raid on the West Bank town of Hebron, another Palestinian was captured.
Israel has killed or captured dozens of Palestinians whom it accuses of staging or orchestrating attacks on Israelis, after charging that Arafat had failed to apprehend them.
In Gaza City before his meeting with Blair, Arafat condemned Thursday's killings of the two Palestinians as a "criminal act."