Violence Erodes Mideast Peace Talks
JERUSALEM (AP) _ The Israeli and Palestinian leaders spoke by phone Friday for the first time in nearly a month _ with Russia’s president serving as middleman _ but their agreement to renew security coordination was quickly undercut by deadly clashes and rocket attacks that killed five Palestinians and two Israelis.
Three Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire in clashes and two Palestinian brothers were killed by shrapnel from an Israeli rocket attack in West Bank village of Kufr Kalil, Palestinian doctors said. An Israeli motorist was shot and killed in a roadside ambush.
In the Gaza Strip town of Khan Yunis, Palestinian gunmen fired at Israeli troops from behind walls of sandbags, drawing return fire and prompting an exchange of anti-tank missiles, the army said. An Israeli soldier was killed and five Palestinians wounded.
In Bethlehem, an Israeli tank shelled a Palestinian hotel _ to flush out gunmen, according to the army, though the owners said the attack was without provocation. At the Karni crossing between Israel and Gaza, a few dozen Palestinian teen-agers threw stones at two Israeli tanks. One of the tanks swerved and pointed its cannon at the group, without shooting, and then pulled back to the jeers of the youngsters.
Friday’s deaths brought the overall toll in two months of fighting to 271. The vast majority of those killed have been Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had not spoken for more than three weeks before their Friday phone exchange. The conversation was arranged by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was meeting with Arafat in Moscow. Barak and Putin were speaking by phone while Arafat was in the room. At one point, the Russian leader, after asking Barak’s permission, handed the phone to Arafat.
Arafat promised to make efforts to stop the violence, Barak’s office said.
The two leaders also agreed to renew low-level security cooperation and the work of 10 liaison offices that Israel ordered closed Thursday after an Israeli soldier was killed in a bombing at one of the offices in the Gaza Strip. The liaison offices were a main component of peace agreements. A resumption of security coordination, even at the level of officers in the field, could help restore some of the lost trust and be a first step toward ending two months of fighting.
However, Gilead Sher, a senior Barak aide, was skeptical that a real truce would take hold, noting that several previous cease-fire agreements quickly unraveled.
``Reality is what we assess, not words,″ Sher told The Associated Press. He said Israel will consider a resumption of peace talks only if there is a ``dramatic reduction in Palestinian hostilities.″
Israel’s foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, was to fly to Moscow in the coming days for a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, another sign of growing Russian involvement in Mideast mediation. Senior Palestinians, meanwhile, said Arafat has renewed an order that Palestinians stop shooting at Israelis from Palestinian-controlled areas.
Still, the fighting persisted.
Two Palestinians _ Ghassan Karaan, 20, and Ayfar Hasis, 15 _ were killed by Israeli fire in rock-throwing clashes in the West Bank towns of Qalqilya and Jenin. In the Gaza town of Rafah, Ziad Abu Jeser, 20, was found dead after being shot more than a dozen times, Palestinian doctors said, blaming Israeli fire. An Israeli motorist, Ariel Jerafi, was killed in a West Bank shooting ambush.
Near the Gaza town of Khan Yunis, a two-hour gun battle broke out between Israeli and Palestinian security forces. Israelis shot an anti-tank missile toward Palestinian police offices when another missile was fired from the spot, the army said. Palestinians said the Israeli soldiers shot five missiles and that five Palestinians were injured.
In the West Bank town of Nablus, thousands of Palestinians attended the funeral of Ibrahim Bani Odeh, an Islamic militant bombmaker who Palestinians say was assassinated by Israel. Bani Odeh’s Hamas group pledged revenge.
``Our response will be more car bombs and they (the Israelis) will pay a high price,″ the Hamas leader in Nablus, Sheik Hamed Bitawi, told thousands of mourners, firing a pistol in the air for emphasis.
On Wednesday, two Israelis were killed and more than 60 wounded in a car bomb attack in the northern Israeli town of Hadera. The bombing was widely blamed on Islamic militants.