Israeli, Palestinian deaths renew settlements debate

Six dead in attacks

freeze on expansions still a haggling point

May 30, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Three Israelis and three Palestinians died yesterday in a series of attacks that pushed the issue of Jewish settlements to the forefront of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and efforts to end it.

Settlements are the focus of much of the fighting and the deepest source of Palestinian grievance. Since the conflict began, more Israeli civilians have died in the West Bank and Gaza than inside Israel itself. Many of the Palestinians killed have died in clashes with Israeli soldiers protecting settlements.

Settlers view themselves as the first line of defense for the whole land of Israel, and argue that if the settlements didn't exist as a target, Palestinians would be aiming their guns and mortars at Israeli population centers in Jerusalem, Ashkelon and Tel Aviv. They are among the most outspoken critics of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's week-old policy of restraint.

To them, Gilad Zar died a hero. Zar, chief of security for 33 West Bank settlements called the Shomron area, was killed yesterday morning in a Palestinian ambush near the West Bank city of Nablus. Israeli media reported that after shooting at his car, the gunmen approached and fired at close range.

A shadowy group called the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade issued a statement in Beirut saying that the attack had been carried out by a wing of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement. Zar, 41 and the father of eight, had been seriously injured in a shooting attack several months ago, but returned to work two weeks later.

"He was the first to know everything, understand everything and handle it with a lot of common sense. He was a very, very brave person and very, very beloved," said Ahuva Shilo, a spokeswoman for the Shomron settlements.

Yesterday afternoon, a carload of Israelis en route to Zar's funeral was fired upon, leaving two settlers dead - Sarah Blaustein, 50, an American who immigrated a year ago to the West Bank community of Efrat from Lawrence, N.Y., and another Efrat resident, Esther Alva, 20.

In the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up near an Israeli military post outside the settlement of Neve Dekalim. A second Palestinian was shot to death by soldiers while hurling a grenade. A third Palestinian was killed near Jericho in an attack that Palestinians blamed on Israeli gunmen.

The stepped-up violence cast a shadow over American-led efforts to restore calm after eight months of bitter conflict - efforts in which the question of settlements has proved a central stumbling block.

A team headed by the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, William Burns, has been struggling for the past three days to get Israelis and Palestinians to agree to a plan for ending the fighting.

But Burns said in a statement last night that "the continuation of violence threatens to overtake these efforts." His statement called on the leaders "on an urgent basis to take meaningful and practical efforts to bring the violence under control."

Burns is trying to implement a series of steps recommended by a commission led by the former U.S. Senate Majority leader, George Mitchell. The commission called for a complete halt to the violence, to be followed by a cooling-off period and then a series of confidence-building measures. Among the latter, commission members have demanded a total settlement freeze.

Israel refuses to commit itself to a total freeze, and neither Burns nor Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has publicly demanded one. In a statement, however, Burns said he is trying to implement the Mitchell Report "in all its aspects." Palestinians, in turn, have balked at calling off the shooting until Israel accepts all the Mitchell recommendations as one package.

For decades, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been a champion of settlement expansion. Some Israelis speculate that his government could collapse if he yielded to a freeze.

Adding to pressure from the right, Housing Minister Natan Sharansky confirmed to Israel Radio yesterday that he had approved construction of 700 housing units divided between the West Bank settlements of Ma'ale Adumim, outside Jerusalem, and Alfe Menashe, near Qalqilya along the border between Israel and the West Bank.

And the Israeli group Peace Now says a recent aerial survey identified 15 new settlement outposts under construction in the West Bank. Many of the 145 current settlements, housing a total of 200,000 residents, began as remote outposts manned by pioneers determined to secure a foothold in the biblical Land of Israel.

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