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Man Fires on Tourists on Israeli Border

November 19, 2003

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) _ A gunman trying to infiltrate an Israeli border crossing from Jordan fired on a crowd of tourists Wednesday, wounding five Ecuadoreans, officials said. The assailant was shot dead.

The violence came as Egyptian mediators and the Palestinian prime minister traveled to the Gaza Strip on Wednesday to try to persuade militants to halt attacks on Israel, while Israel signaled willingness to scale back military operations in Gaza and the West Bank.

A truce would be key to restarting the frozen U.S.-backed ``road map″ peace plan, which envisions a Palestinian state by 2005. Talks stalled several months ago because of violence and Palestinian political turmoil.

The shooting occurred at the Rabin terminal, an open-air checkpoint near Eilat, a Red Sea tourist town on Israel’s southern tip, next to the Jordanian resort of Aqaba. The military said the attacker leapt from the back of a truck and fired on a crowd that included foreign tourists before he was shot dead by security personnel.

Nobody claimed responsibility, and Jordanian officials condemned the incident.

All five of the wounded tourists were from Ecuador, said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jill Reinach.

Jordanian government spokeswoman Asma Khader said the gunman was a Jordanian truck driver from Zarqa _ a predominantly Palestinian city.

``Preliminary information indicates that it was an individual and not an organizational act,″ Khader told The Associated Press.

Jordan and Israel established diplomatic relations in 1994. Incidents of cross-border violence are rare, although in 1997, seven Israeli schoolchildren were killed by a Jordanian soldier in a border area near the northern Israeli town of Beit Shean.

Egyptian intelligence officials and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia were to hold separate talks later Wednesday with the leaders of the militant groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Egyptian officials said they also would meet with Palestinian security branches. Next week, leaders of the militant groups are to meet with Egyptian mediators in Cairo.

Qureia, who took office last week, said his first priority is to get the militants to agree to a truce, and then bring Israel into the accord.

Israel has shown signs of softening its position, in part because Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is under growing pressure at home and abroad to end the deadlock.

In the past, Israel refused to consider a truce until Palestinian security forces begin dismantling armed groups _ a requirement of the road map. Palestinian leaders have balked, saying they will not use force against the militants for fear of triggering internal fighting.

In recent days, Israeli officials have indicated they are willing to give a truce a chance, for a limited period, without insisting on a crackdown on militants.

A senior Israeli official, briefing reporters accompanying Sharon on a trip to Italy, said Israel is willing to stop most targeted killings of Palestinian militants if Qureia obtains a truce pledge from the armed groups. This would meet a key demand by the militants, who say they will only halt attacks if Israel promises to halt military operations and the deal is backed by international mediators.

The Israeli official said militants planning or carrying out attacks would still be targets. He also stressed that Israel would never recognize a Palestinian state if the violent groups are not dismantled.

A unilateral cease-fire declared by the militants in June broke down after several weeks due to continued violence.

Islamic Jihad spokesman Nafez Azzam said the group welcomed dialogue with Qureia and the Egyptians but a cease-fire would depend on Israel.

``Any new proposal or any initiative should be guaranteed that the enemy will be committed to halt their aggression against our people and not to violate the hudna (cease-fire),″ he said.

But the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a violent group loosely affiliated with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, appeared to rule out a cease-fire. ``We are committed to continue resistance and confronting the occupation all over Palestine, as long as there are soldiers, settlers and occupiers on the land of Palestine,″ the group said.

Israeli officials, meanwhile, said a meeting between Qureia and Sharon could take place next week, but Palestinian officials denied a date has been set.

In the West Bank, Palestinian police arrested a suspect in the killing of two Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint on Tuesday, Palestinian security sources said.

Jaber al-Atrash, a member of the Palestinian security forces in Bethlehem, confessed to the killings and was found with a letter saying he intended to carry out a suicide shooting attack, a Palestinian security source said on condition of anonymity.

A senior Israeli government official said Palestinian efforts to find and punish those behind attacks on Israelis were sporadic and needed to be sustained.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades took responsibility for the attack, Israel Radio said Wednesday.

In another development, Arafat decided to release the bank accounts of Islamic charities that had been frozen in August on suspicion that they funneled money to militant groups, a Palestinian official said. Arafat’s decision was a goodwill gesture to the Islamic groups in advance of cease-fire talks.

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