Israelis and Palestinians cease fire

Terrorist attacks on U.S. altered the equation in Mideast

Terrorism Strikes America

The World

September 19, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israel ordered its troops to halt military actions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip yesterday after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat announced a cease-fire that could be a first step toward ending a year of deadly violence.

The Israeli army ordered an end to offensive strikes and banned soldiers from entering Palestinian territory. Arafat ordered his security forces to refrain from shooting, even in self-defense.

"We have to welcome the new tone and hope it continues," Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said in a statement issued by his office.

Officials from the United States and Europe praised the moves.

A top aide to United Nations Middle East envoy Terje Roed Larson, who was in Israeli yesterday, called it "a significant cease-fire. Arafat stretched out his hand to Israel and Israel accepted."

Sporadic gunfire was reported, including exchanges in Hebron, even as Israeli tanks began to withdraw from three Palestinian-controlled cities on the West Bank. But it was not significant enough to undermine the tentative truce, which for the first time was not limited to words.

The United States has pressured both sides to end the violence to prevent the Middle East conflict from hindering Bush administration efforts to build a coalition of states to fight terrorism in the wake of last week's attacks in New York and Washington.

Arafat faced a clear but difficult choice of either applying pressure on Palestinian factions to halt the violence or risk being lumped in with those who attacked the World Trade Center and branded a terrorist.

Washington also had urged Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to negotiate a cease-fire with Arafat. Sharon initially declined, saying that support for a U.S.-led anti-terrorism coalition could not come at the expense of Israel's security.

On Sunday, Sharon said he would allow truce talks after 48 hours of quiet. Arafat ordered a cease-fire Sunday night and reissued the order yesterday during a meeting in Gaza with foreign diplomats.

Both sides have pushed their own agendas since the terrorist attacks last week in the United States, events that have fundamentally altered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"September 11th changed the world," the U.N aide said yesterday, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They decided that the best way to end this was by negotiating, and not through the barrel of a gun. In that sense, this is unique. We all have our fingers crossed.

"The peace is fragile," the aide said. "If there is one more bombing in the next few days, we will be back to square one."

Radical Islamic groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad are sources of potential trouble. The U.N. official said Arafat met with leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad to secure an agreement to end the violence.

Islamic Jihad said in a statement faxed to news agencies in Beirut, Lebanon, that it rejects "the so-called cease-fire." The organization has claimed responsibility for suicide bombings against Israelis.

Ziad Abu Amr, a member of the Palestinian parliament, said Arafat had no choice but to stop fighting. "After what happened in America, he knew violence wouldn't be accepted anymore," Amr said. "He didn't want to give the Israelis an excuse to hit him hard."

Israeli officials remain cautious. But they said Arafat's firm orders "to act intensively in securing a cease-fire on all our fronts" and relative quiet in the territories persuaded them to rein in the Israeli military, including calling a halt to targeted killings.

"If it stays quiet, then our orders will stay," said Yarden Vatikai, an adviser to Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. "If it doesn't stay quiet, then obviously the orders will be canceled. This is a test. We want to give Arafat a chance."

Israeli and Palestinian officials were working last night to convene a meeting of security aides who could revive military-level talks sponsored by the CIA that broke off a month ago.

Palestinian officials in the West Bank remained optimistic last night. In Jenin, which has been under Israeli siege for seven days, four of ten tanks surrounding the city had left within hours of Israel's orders. No shooting was reported in the city.

"Our security officials are working hard to enforce the cease-fire orders," said Deputy Gov. Haidar Rsheid. "We have control of the town. Today it has been quiet. We will wait and see if the situation holds."

The cease-fire comes after a week of grim violence that left 26 Palestinians and six Israelis dead in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Casualties on the Palestinian side included children, a disabled bystander and a medic treating a wounded man. The Israelis counted among their dead a young soldier and a man ambushed as he drove his car near the Jerusalem neighborhood of French Hill.

The violence continued through yesterday morning, when five Israeli tanks entered a Palestinian port being built in the Gaza Strip and destroyed several offices. Israelis shelled a Palestinian police station there in retaliation for a mortar attack on a Jewish settlement.

Also early yesterday, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a passenger on a Palestinian tractor that the army said refused to stop at a checkpoint near Nablus. And in Hebron, a Palestinian taxi driver was killed when he apparently was caught in a crossfire.

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