Israel shells home of top Palestinian

Cheney urges sides to prevent violence from escalating

`Down this road lies disaster'

Sharon tries to ward off criticism within government, media

May 21, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israeli tank shells damaged the home of a top Palestinian security official in the West Bank last night as the region continued to feel the aftershocks of Friday's cycle of bombing and reprisal, which left 18 Israelis and Palestinians dead.

With international concern rising that the violence has spun out of control, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney came close to demanding that Israel stop using U.S.-supplied F-16 warplanes in attacks on Palestinians, as occurred Friday night.

"It's clear now that the consequences for both the Israelis and the Palestinians of continuing this ever-escalation of violence are beginning to get very, very serious," the vice president said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Asked whether Israel should stop using F-16s, he said, "I think they should stop - both sides should stop and think about where they're headed here because down this road lies disaster."

Israel launched the F-16s during raids against targets in the West Bank and Gaza, killing 12 Palestinian police officers, after a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up and killed five Israelis hours earlier at a shopping center in the coastal city of Netanya.

As the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon tried to fend off strong criticism over the airstrikes from inside Israel, the army became embroiled in a new dispute last night over its shelling of the home of Jibril Rajoub, head of preventive security in the West Bank and a top aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The army said its troops launched the shells at a Palestinian "firing position" in Rajoub's back yard near Ramallah during a gunbattle at the nearby Ayosh Junction, a frequent flash point.

"There was no intention of hitting Jibril Rajoub," the army said.

Rajoub, who was home at the time, escaped with a minor hand injury. Several of his bodyguards were also wounded, a spokeswoman said.

Meeting with reporters later, Rajoub said, "It's a clear message to the international community that the Israeli government is insisting to use state terror against the Palestinian people." But he added, "I don't think that this is an assassination attempt on my life."

In the past, Rajoub has cooperated with Israeli efforts to prevent terrorist attacks.

Meeting with his security Cabinet yesterday morning, Sharon received a renewed mandate for continued attacks against Palestinian targets, but only after some members demanded that he specify what kind of targets would be hit. Sources said he named munitions factories and terrorist camps and facilities. Last night, air force helicopters struck a mortar bomb factory in the area of the Jabaliya refugee camp, the army said.

The Cabinet's refusal to grant him carte blanche followed criticism from the news media and from current and former government and military officials over Sharon's decision Friday to escalate the conflict by using fighter jets to attack Palestinian targets. Previously, the army has fired missiles from helicopters and tanks.

Within the government, Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh criticized the way the decision was made - with only Sharon, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres involved.

Sneh, who was defense minister in the previous government, also voiced concern that such an attack could advance Arafat's bid to bring the international community into the conflict and strain relations with the United States.

Former air force commander Eitan Ben-Eliyahu said, "Under the present circumstances and timing, I wouldn't send an F-16 up into the air because the consequences of such a step could be extremely harsh."

He pointed to public-relations damage and reaction by the two leading moderates among Arab states, Jordan and Egypt.

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert was also critical, according to Israel Radio: "If I had taken part in the security Cabinet, I think I would have made several suggestions, and I'm not sure that this would have been the first."

"I don't believe in conducting the kind of struggle we're conducting - low-intensity conflict - from 24,000 feet," said Shai Feldman, head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. An F-16 attack, producing video footage of buildings reduced to rubble, "can only help the Palestinians in their attempt to portray themselves as David against Goliath."

He attributed the decision to government frustration at its inability to prevent terror attacks and an effort to appease public anger after the "horrific" Netanya bombing. At a briefing for reporters, the army's chief of planning, Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, said F-16s were chosen because their payload can inflict heavier damage than attack helicopters' can.

The F-16 attack that produced the highest number of casualties was on a police station in Nablus. Eiland confirmed that the intent was to kill Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, a leader of the Islamic resistance movement Hamas, who was being held there in protective custody. As it turned out, he escaped with relatively minor injuries.

All sides in the conflict are awaiting today's release of a report on the violence by a commission headed by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, a Democrat from Maine. The Bush administration has been hesitant to endorse one of the report's key recommendations - a total freeze on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza - which would put the United States at loggerheads with the Sharon government.

Mitchell's report is to be used as a means for Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to present a U.S. plan to help curtail the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to a New York Times report.

Citing senior administration officials, the newspaper said Powell's plan will stop short of full intercession and instead is likely to make a formal statement, as early as today, in which the two sides will have options that could lead to further public personal diplomacy.

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