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Deadly Mideast Attacks Precede Powell's Visit

Violence between Israel and Palestinian militants comes before meetings on peace plan.

May 09, 2003|Ruth Morris | Special to The Times

JERUSALEM — Israeli security forces killed one Palestinian militant and another detonated a car bomb on Thursday, days before Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is to arrive as part of the Mideast peace drive.

Witnesses said two Israeli Apache helicopters swooped down and fired missiles at a car traveling along a thinly populated slip of road in northeastern Gaza, killing the driver, 30-year-old Hamas operative Iyad Beik. Human rights monitors condemn such attacks as extrajudicial killings, while the Israeli army says they are aimed at fracturing terrorist cells before they take action.

Hours later, a Palestinian suicide bomber drove a car packed with explosives past an Israeli tank near the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom, also in Gaza, and detonated it. The bomber died and there were no reports of casualties or injuries among Israeli troops.

Earlier in the day, Israeli security forces said they had killed an unarmed Palestinian after he failed to respond to warning calls in Arabic and Hebrew at a Gaza checkpoint. Palestinian medics said the man died from shrapnel wounds consistent with fragments from a tank shell.

The deadly attacks came as international mediators were gearing up for renewed peace efforts in the Middle East aimed at implementing a U.S.-backed "road map" to end 31 months of violence.

Powell will arrive in Israel on Saturday evening and will remain through Sunday for back-to-back meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials to try to jump-start the peace plan.

Mediators from Europe, Russia and the United Nations -- which with the U.S. created the road map -- will also be pushing the initiative.

At its heart, the road map seeks to establish an autonomous Palestinian state by 2005, but in the short term it calls for Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian areas of Gaza and the West Bank that it occupied after Sept. 28, 2000. It also insists that Palestinians reform their government and dismantle terror networks responsible for suicide attacks.

Palestinian militant groups are reluctant to embrace newly assigned Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and they have rejected the Israeli position that terrorism must end before Israel pulls its tanks and troops from the occupied areas.

"Our only option is to resist occupation, which continues to kill and destroy and bulldoze and sabotage our area," said Abdulaziz Rantisi, an official of the Islamic group Hamas. The militant branch of Hamas has sponsored dozens of suicide bombings in Israeli cafes and buses.

"No one will be able to disarm Hamas," he said.

Powell's visit will also touch off a flurry of diplomatic contacts by Israeli authorities hoping to revise the road map.

Senior officials have said they want to scrap the Palestinians' demand for the right to return to land inside Israel that refugees fled or were forced to leave in 1948. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is set to visit the White House on May 20, while his foreign minister will head to London next week.

A prominent human rights group also called for revisions to the peace plan Thursday, saying the document treated human rights advances as milestones, even bargaining chips, rather than universal standards.

In the published report, New York-based Human Rights Watch condemned the Israeli practice of razing the homes of people related to suicide bombers, for example. Monitors say the demolitions constitute an illegal, collective punishment.

"Israel's responsibility to cease such practices exists independently from any political framework," the report said. It also criticized Palestinian security forces for torturing and killing alleged collaborators.

Also Thursday, forensic experts confirmed that British cameraman James Miller was shot in the throat by Israeli troops when he died on assignment in Gaza last week. Miller was facing the soldiers when he was shot, but Health Ministry sources originally said the bullet had entered his back, suggesting it did not come from an army rifle.

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