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Mideast Foes Offer the U.S. Little to Build On

Diplomacy: Hardened stances of both Sharon and Arafat leave Washington envoy little maneuvering room in planning a peace forum.


JERUSALEM -- With Israeli troops back in the West Bank city of Nablus and security forces on high alert for more suicide attacks, neither Israelis nor Palestinians held out much hope Friday that the Bush administration's latest peacemaking effort will produce a breakthrough.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told U.S. envoy William Burns here that the Palestinians will have to end all violence and incitement and carry out top-to-bottom reforms of their government and security services before the Israelis will negotiate with them.

For his part, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat said Israel's raid into Nablus and the neighboring Balata refugee camp, where troops detained hundreds of Palestinians, was "as if they are saying to the world that we do not want to reach any agreement."

The entrenched positions of both leaders leave Burns, who arrived Thursday, with little maneuvering room as he looks for enough common ground to put together an international peace conference. That proposed gathering, already delayed at least until late summer, has drawn only lukewarm support from Arab states and Israel.

The reality on the ground is that the Israelis continue to make near-daily incursions into Palestinian-controlled areas in pursuit of militants, and Palestinians continue to launch near-daily attacks both inside Israel's pre-1967 borders and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Sharon is being pushed by right-wing members of his government to launch a massive military assault on Palestinian areas or even expel Arafat if there is another large-scale attack on Israelis.

There have been several close calls in recent days.

Early Friday, a lone Palestinian gunman broke into Shavei Shomron, a Jewish settlement near Nablus. He planted a bomb on the basketball court, then threw two grenades at a kindergarten and raked it with gunfire shortly after the pupils had gone inside to start their day, the police reported. At least one bullet pierced a window, but no one was injured in the attack.

The gunman then walked toward the settlement's grocery store, where he was spotted by the owner, David Elbaz.

"I heard gunshots. Then I came across the terrorist. He shot at me, and so I shot back," Elbaz told Israel Television. "I hit him in the chest. I walked around him. I came from his back when he wasn't expecting and continued to shoot at him, and he was eliminated."

It was the second attack on a Jewish settlement in the West Bank this week. On Tuesday, a Palestinian gunman shot and killed three Israeli teenagers in the settlement of Itamar, also near Nablus.

The attacks, coupled with reports from the police and the army that they have thwarted several planned assaults and expect more, have deepened the sense of crisis here.

Israelis were further shaken by the revelation Thursday that an Israeli had been arrested on suspicion of helping her husband, a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem, drive a pair of suicide bombers to the Israeli city of Rishon Le Zion last week to carry out an attack. One bomber, a woman, had second thoughts and backed out of the attack. She was later arrested. The other attacker set off a blast at a pedestrian mall frequented by Russian immigrants, killing himself and two other people.

Israeli newspapers ran front-page stories Friday on the allegations against the woman, who was identified as a 26-year-old immigrant from the former Soviet Union, Marina Pinsky, and her 33-year-old husband, Ibrahim Sarachne. Pinsky reportedly told her interrogators that she knew only after the fact that the Palestinians intended to carry out bombings.

The couple had lived in the Dahaisha refugee camp, near Bethlehem, with Sarachne's family. On Friday, family members said he was married to a Muslim woman and had five children with her before taking Pinsky as his second wife. The couple have one daughter.

His brother, Moussa, told The Times that Ibrahim Sarachne was a car thief. Other sources inside the camp also said he was a car thief, and one whom other Palestinians suspected of collaborating with the Israelis.

One senior Palestinian source, speaking on condition that he not be named, said Ibrahim Sarachne had agreed to help militants carry out the Rishon Le Zion bombing in an effort to clear his name.

Palestinian vigilantes have killed dozens of suspected collaborators since the current fighting erupted in September 2000.

The army says it is sending troops and tanks into Palestinian towns in an effort to thwart more of the kind of bombings that have had such a devastating impact on the lives of Israelis. Only hours after troops ended a five-day reoccupation of Bethlehem on Thursday, tanks and troops entered Nablus and Balata, a militant stronghold. Nablus was the site of heavy fighting in April.

Hussam Khader, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and leader of Balata, said the incursion began shortly before midnight. Israeli forces ordered many residents out of their homes and conducted searches, smashing the connecting walls between at least half a dozen houses, camp residents said. Soldiers ordered all males between the ages of 14 and 50 into an open area, Khader said.

An Israeli army spokesman confirmed Friday night that hundreds of men were detained for questioning. At least 20 wanted men among them were arrested.

Tanks were still on the streets of Nablus late Friday, and the town was under military curfew. There were no reports of casualties.

"It is very difficult to capture [suicide bombers] at the entrance to [Israeli] cities, buses and restaurants and easier to catch them at their point of departure," army spokesman Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey told Israel's Army Radio.

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