Israeli leader cancels visit to America

Prime minister to focus on quelling protests in Palestinian areas

100 reported wounded

New danger looms in S. Lebanon as terrorist groups ally

May 21, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Ehud Barak canceled last night a visit to the United States due to start tomorrow so that he could concentrate on controlling violent riots in the Palestinian territories and mounting threats in southern Lebanon.

Young Palestinians continued hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers yesterday, and a bullet struck a soldier's helmet in the West Bank town of Tulkarm. About 100 Palestinians and an Israeli civilian were reported wounded in several cities.

Military sources reported a new danger looming over the withdrawal of Israeli troops from South Lebanon that Barak vows to complete by July: an alliance between Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas and a Damascus-based radical Palestinian group known in the past for daring and unusual acts of terror.

Barak's office issued a terse statement late last night as he met with his security Cabinet, saying he had "decided this evening to postpone his trip to the United States in the light of events in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] and in Lebanon."

He was to have met with President Clinton on Tuesday, spoken to a major Jewish group in New York and addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee meeting in Washington.

To punish the Palestinians for 10 days of bloody riots that twice exploded into gun battles between Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers, Barak again delayed turning over three Arab villages near Jerusalem to full Palestinian control.

Israel Radio reported that the handover would not occur until the Palestinian Authority under Yasser Arafat acted to calm the situation and draw the appropriate "lessons" from it.

In Gaza yesterday, Palestinian police dispersed scores of teen-age Palestinians pelting Israeli military vehicles with stones and Molotov cocktails outside a Jewish settlement.

The scene was close to the site of a brief gunfight between soldiers and Palestinian police the day before that left an Israeli soldier severely wounded.

In Hebron and Tulkarm, Palestinian riot-control efforts were less successful, and Israeli troops firing rubber bullets injured numerous Palestinian youths.

Arafat has shown reluctance to use force to subdue the young rioters, and Palestinian officials have blamed Israel for the escalation."No authority can control the street," said Khaled el Katib, an official of the Palestinian information ministry, interviewed in Gaza.

An explosion of violence had been expected for months because of growing frustration among ordinary Palestinians with the lack of progress in peace talks.

This week's riots coincided with intense negotiations between Palestinian and Israeli envoys out of the spotlight in Stockholm, Sweden. Both sides agree that the talks are serious.

Clinton hopes to participate in a three-way summit next month to nail down a framework accord for a final Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Arafat appeared unenthusiastic about the idea yesterday. APalestinian official told Reuters, "President Arafat believes that a summit would be better after progress is achieved in the negotiations."

It was unclear what effect the cancellation of this week's Clinton-Barak meeting would have on the White House plans. Clinton was known to be preparing to press Barak to make more concessions to hasten a deal.

Barak has to devote growing attention north of Israel's border, where Hezbollah guerrillas are determined to show that they are forcibly driving Israeli soldiers out of Lebanon. Their attacks in recent weeks have included the firing of Katyusha rockets into northern Israel, causing residents to flee in panic.

Now they appear to have teamed up, under the approving gaze of Syria, with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a radical group led by Ahmad Jibril, a onetime Syrian army captain who broke with Arafat in the early days of the Palestinian struggle.

Israeli combat planes attacked a Popular Front base in Lebanon yesterday, destroying 10 tanks of the kind that Hezbollah has borrowed lately.

The attack, close enough to Syria to be picked up by Syrian radar, was intended as a warning to Damascus not to encourage the new alliance in new attacks against Israel.

The Popular Front conducted the first suicide attack against Israel in 1974, blowing up three of its members and 13 hostages in Kiryat Shimona.

The group has also used hang gliders and hot-air balloons for incursions into Israel.

It draws support inside some of Lebanon's teeming refugee camps, home to Palestinian families who fled or were driven from their homes in Israel in the 1948 war.

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