West Bank violence again derails truce talks

Sharon cancels meeting after Palestinians ambush Israeli couple

September 25, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Until dawn yesterday, truce talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority seemed as if they might finally take place. No guns had been fired by either side for 12 hours. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon even acknowledged the possibility that the Palestinians would one day have their own state.

That period of hope ended shortly after dawn when Palestinian gunmen ambushed a car near the village of Bardaleh in the northern West Bank, killing an Israeli woman identified as Salit Shitreet, 28, and wounding her husband.

The militant group Islamic Jihad, which opposes talks between the two sides, claimed responsibility for the attack.

The cease-fire meeting was canceled again.

Officials said such a meeting is now unlikely before late Thursday, the end of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, which begins at sundown tomorrow.

Sharon said through a spokesman that the 48 hours of "absolute quiet" that he has said must precede any meeting between Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had to start again from zero.

On Sunday, "for the first time, there were signs Arafat was making an effort to thwart terror. But this morning there was another shooting attack," Sharon told visiting French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine yesterday. "The meeting between Peres and Arafat was conditional on the total cessation of terror attacks."

The latest delay comes despite U.S. officials' urging that the Peres-Arafat meeting go forward to help smooth the way for including Arab states in a U.S.-led anti-terrorism coalition.

The talks' on-again-off-again status has become an obvious source of tension between Sharon, who believes a meeting should be a reward for ending the violence, and Peres, who believes a meeting is the way to end the violence.

Even seasoned operatives schooled in the back-and-forth nature of Israeli politics are confused by what is happening in the government.

"At 4 in the afternoon, on the way to an important diplomatic meeting, Peres calls and reminds me that Arafat is a partner for peace," a diplomat told the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot. "At 4:30, as I'm at the door, the prime minister's bureau reaches me and passes me on to Sharon, who reminds me that Arafat is a terrorist."

Peres, a member of the left-of-center Labor Party, has repeatedly pushed for talks. He met Saturday with Palestinian officials to devise a truce that would include an easing of Israel's military blockades on Palestinian cities and towns.

On Sunday, after Sharon canceled the cease-fire meeting, Peres threatened to take a leave of absence and the Labor Party nearly pulled out of the coalition government formed six months ago.

In an interview with Yediot Ahronot, Peres described himself as humiliated. "Sharon has made a mockery of me in the eyes of the world," he said.

But the two met yesterday and agreed that the meeting with Arafat had to be delayed because of the shooting.

The Labor Party also canceled a planned meeting with Sharon, after which its members were to have decided whether to pull out of the coalition government.

The failure of Sharon's government to take military action after yesterday's shooting, and one south of Bethlehem last week, has angered Jewish settlers. David Levy, head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, told Israel Radio yesterday that the tentative truce and Israel's decision to rein in its army has cost lives.

"Our sense is that we've lost all control here," Levy said. "We link the terror to diplomatic matters, we deal in slogans. Until this matter is handled thoroughly, it won't stop."

In a speech broadcast yesterday on state radio, minutes before the fatal shooting, Sharon had softened his hard-line stance of recent days, in which he has repeatedly compared Arafat to suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden.

Sharon said Israel wants to give the Palestinians "what no one else has heretofore given them: the possibility of establishing a state. The state of Israel is a nation that desires peace, and will do everything to achieve a true and open peace. We are not fighting the Palestinians, we are fighting terrorism."

"All that Israel has asked - and Arafat has also committed himself to this - is to stop the terrorism, to live in peace, to live in calm," Sharon said.

In a related development, the Israeli army yesterday declared a stretch of territory between the West Bank cities of Tulkarm and Jenin a "closed military zone," making it off limits to Palestinians who do not live there.

The closure is intended to prevent suicide bombers from infiltrating Israel. Army officials said the zone is mostly made up of agricultural land that is entirely within Israel's jurisdiction and only affects a handful of villages.

The Palestinian Authority called creation of the zone "a racist separation plan," and "the most dangerous measure carried out by Israeli occupiers ... to separate huge areas from the rest of the West Bank in order to transform it into closed prisons."

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