Killing, violence threaten Mideast truce, worrying U.S.

Terrorism Strikes American

The World

September 21, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - The killing of an Israeli motorist in the West Bank yesterday and other violence have jeopardized a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, worrying U.S. officials who say peace here is crucial for building a coalition against terrorism.

Israel's security Cabinet was called into emergency session last night to discuss the terms of the truce, which was crafted during a series of 19 telephone calls among Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Israeli and Palestinian leaders. That level of involvement was a drastic contrast to recent U.S. inattention here.

Truces have come and gone over the past year of fighting, but never has so much ridden on two hardened warriors - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat - to end the deadly conflict.

Since the attacks in New York and Virginia, the once quiescent United States suddenly needs the fighting here to stop so it can forge a wide anti-terrorism alliance. The United States wants to include nations that would be reluctant to join as long as American ally Israel is engaged in a miniwar with the Palestinians.

"The stakes are significant," said an American official familiar with the political maneuvering, adding the United States has entered the fray with full diplomatic muster. "You don't want to go in without a strong base of Middle East support."

In the past six days, Powell has talked by telephone 19 times with Sharon, Arafat or Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, sometimes for as long as 90 minutes, the official said.

Sharon called Powell at 1:30 a.m. yesterday to complain about Arafat after a single incident in which two Israelis were wounded when an explosive device detonated near their car on a road leading to a West Bank settlement.

It only got worse several hours later, when Sarit Amrani, 26, was shot and killed while driving with her family to a Jewish settlement near the West Bank town of Bethlehem. Her husband was seriously hurt; her three children were not injured.

Two groups from Arafat's Fatah faction claimed responsibility for the attacks, a troubling sign that Arafat is having internal difficulties reining in gunmen directly under his control. Two radical groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have said they will not abide by the cease-fire.

Arafat, trying to keep the accord alive, vowed in a telephone call to Peres that his security forces knew the identities of the militant gunmen and that they would arrest them.

That did little to appease Israeli officials, who are being accused by right-wing politicians of caving in to a terrorist regime.

After the attacks, Sharon postponed until tomorrow a meeting between Peres and Arafat designed to strengthen the cease-fire and lead to the implementation of months-old agreements that have yet to take effect because of the violence. Privately, Israeli officials said last night that they felt compelled to adhere to the cease-fire because of mounting U.S. pressure.

Violence continued sporadically throughout the day, much of it centered in the Gaza Strip. Five soldiers were wounded by an explosive device, and heavy exchanges of gunfire were reported in the Egyptian border city of Rafah.

The American official described U.S. pressure on both sides as significant. U.S. diplomats say the attacks against the United States offer Sharon and Arafat a special opportunity and face-saving excuse to put down the guns. But there is concern about both sides. Gissin said last night that Sharon is "fully committed to helping the U.S." But "we are not going to become a victim of terrorism so someone else can fight it."

U.S. officials began applying pressure for a peace deal the day after the terrorist attacks in America. The source said President Bush asked Sharon to allow the Peres-Arafat meeting to jump-start talks. But Sharon rebuffed the request. Then on Sunday, Sharon used a special meeting of parliament, attended by U.S. Ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer, to announce a surprise offer to Arafat: He could meet with Peres only after 48 hours of complete quiet.

The American official described that as a small step toward appeasing Bush.

But it was enough to prompt Arafat to order a cease-fire, a step the United States had thought he would take only after being allowed to meet with Peres.

The U.S. official said that should the peace accord fail, U.S. diplomats will intensify their talks and demands.

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