Israelis, Palestinians Talk Truce
JERUSALEM (AP) _ Israel will scale down its retaliation for Palestinian attacks in an effort to avoid worsening the damage its international standing suffered after massive air strikes this week, a senior official said Friday after a late-night Cabinet meeting.
The night passed without an Israeli response to attacks Thursday in which two Israeli soldiers died and a car bombing Wednesday that killed two and injured more than 50. But Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh denied reports that the government had decided not to retaliate at all.
The Cabinet approved ``a full list of operations,″ Sneh told Israel radio, but he said they would be aimed to prevent attacks or ``punish terrorists for attacks they carried out, while causing us the least possible diplomatic damage.″
After Israel retaliated for a bomb attack on a school bus Monday with a massive rocket barrage against Gaza City, in the Gaza Strip, Egypt recalled its ambassador, Jordan delayed sending a new envoy and the United States harshly criticized Israel for using excessive force.
Col. Pini Levy, a senior Israeli commander in Gaza, said his forces would move against armed Palestinians, indicating that special operations could be carried out inside Palestinian-controlled territory.
Before the Cabinet session, Sneh met with two senior Palestinian officials at an Israel-Gaza crossing point, despite an earlier bomb attack on a Gaza liaison post. Sneh said the subject was how to stop eight weeks of violence.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat convened his security council to hear a report from the two officials _ his aide Tayeb Abdel Rahim and Cabinet minister Jamil Tarifi _ and released a statement welcoming the meeting and praising its results.
The meeting came after two Israeli soldiers and two Palestinians died in circumstances far removed from the previous pattern of riot and response, indicating a dangerous new direction in the conflict that has killed more than 260 people since September, mostly Palestinians.
On Thursday, an Israeli army officer was killed and another soldier critically wounded when a bomb exploded at an office in southern Gaza, where Israeli and Palestinian field commanders met to plan joint operations when cooperation was still active, before the current unrest.
It was the last regular channel of communication still open, but after the blast, Israel ordered all Palestinians out of the 10 liaison offices. The Israelis said the offices are in Israeli-controlled territory.
Israeli army spokesman Maj. Yarden Vatikay said the bomb was planted in the common area of the base with the help of the Palestinians posted there. He said the Palestinians left the area minutes before the blast.
Separately, an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian died in an exchange of fire near the Erez crossing, where the meeting took place later. The Palestinians set off a bomb near an Israeli army vehicle and then opened fire. The Israelis fired back, killing a Palestinian, the military said.
The incidents suggested a new direction in the conflict, with armed forces on both sides engaging each other in guerrilla-style warfare rather than the large-scale riots by rock-throwing Palestinian youths that typified the first weeks of the latest unrest.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called Arafat on Thursday night, the Palestinian news agency said. Albright has proposed a plan that includes a truce, buffer zones between Israelis and Palestinians and U.S. mediation. Israel’s Cabinet discussed the plan, Israel television reported.
Palestinians charged that Israel returned to the practice of assassinating militants Thursday. A suspected bomb maker, Ibrahim Bani Odeh of the Hamas group, died when a bomb went off in his car in the West Bank City of Nablus. Palestinian officials charged that Israel planted the bomb with the help of a local collaborator, who disappeared after the explosion. The Israeli military denied it was involved.
Israel killed a local militia leader Wednesday at a Gaza roadblock and another in a helicopter rocket attack Nov. 9 near Bethlehem in the West Bank.
There were few riots Thursday, but gunfire broke out dozens of times.
Facing a parliamentary vote Tuesday that might spell the end of his minority coalition, Barak appealed to hard-line opposition parties to join a ``national emergency government.″
After the Cabinet meeting, Barak met with Likud leader Ariel Sharon, whose visit to a disputed religious site in the Old City of Jerusalem on Sept. 28 triggered the Palestinian rioting. Sharon stood by his refusal to join Barak’s government, hoping to force Barak to call an election.