Blair urges Israel, Palestinians to show restraint in Mideast

Israeli army assassinates 2 suspected members of the militant group Hamas

November 02, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrived here yesterday urging restraint from both sides in the bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict and was greeted with a fresh round of violence as Israel's army assassinated a suspected terrorist.

The morning missile strike on a Palestinian taxi near the West Bank city of Tulkarm forced Blair to walk a diplomatic tightrope when pressed by reporters about Israel's latest targeted killing, a practice that he has criticized in the past as inflammatory.

"It is important that any measures that are taken in relation to security are measured and proper in accordance with international law," he said after lunch with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at his private residence.

But Blair, winding up a Middle East trip to shore up the fragile Arab coalition in the Afghanistan war, added that he understands "the pressure that Sharon is under and the position of the Israeli people who have seen their citizens killed by terrorist acts."

After meeting with Sharon in Jerusalem, Blair flew to the Gaza Strip, where he met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He urged Arafat to arrest suspected militants undermining peace efforts.

Blair plans to visit Washington on Wednesday to brief President Bush on the talks here.

Blair said the "stability of the world" hinges on Middle East peace, and he urged Sharon and Arafat to make greater efforts to curb violence that has killed more than 850 people in 13 months.

"Israel is not going to disappear," Blair said in Jerusalem. "The Palestinians are not going to go away. There will be painful compromises everywhere. But we come back to one simple fact that nobody can dispute: In the end, Israelis and Palestinians are going to have to live together, side by side."

That seems a distant dream. Israeli tanks occupy four Palestinian cities in the West Bank and surround a fifth, defying repeated demands by the United States and Europe to pull out immediately. Army operations to capture or kill suspected Palestinian militants go on daily, with helicopter gunships backing troops marching into villages under the cover of live fire.

Yesterday, missiles from an Apache helicopter hit a taxi occupied by Yasser Atsidah and Fahmi Abu Isha, reputed members of the militant group Hamas. The Israeli army said Atsidah was on his way to carry out a suicide bombing in Israel. Both men were killed, and a third was captured by Israeli commandos.

A statement released by Sharon's office said Atsidah had been imprisoned by the Palestinian Authority for killing two Israelis, but was among many inmates released last year at the beginning of the uprising. Sharon said the Palestinians have refused repeated demands to arrest him.

Police have warned of an imminent terror attack in northern Israel for several days and even closed highways as they hunted for the suspected attackers. Sharon said yesterday that Atsidah was the person they were looking for.

Sharon, speaking at Blair's side, defended as self-defense the strikes against Atsidah and Isha, the seventh and eighth Palestinians killed in the West Bank in two days.

Sharon said he is setting up a negotiating committee with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in an effort to reach a peace settlement that would include a Palestinian state. But he said it would hold a meeting only after "a complete stop to terrorism."

"We are ready for painful compromises," Sharon said. "But there cannot be any compromises, now or in the future, for the lives and the security of our citizens. ... What will bring peace earlier? That these terrorists kill another 20 or 40 or 50 citizens, or if they will be stopped on the way there? We stopped them on the way."

Ahmad Abdel Rahman, the Palestinian Cabinet secretary, said the Israeli strikes would only escalate violence. Sharon, he said, "is insisting through these ugly crimes on sabotaging all the efforts that have been exerted by the Palestinian Authority to secure the cease-fire."

Speaking alongside Blair in Gaza, Arafat said he has made a significant number of arrests but has been unable to locate the two people implicated in the assassination Oct. 17 of Israeli Cabinet Minister Rehavam Zeevi.

Blair's visit to Gaza came close to the 84th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, in which the British gave support for the creation of a Jewish state in what was then Palestine.

The Palestinian Authority, through its official news agency, called yesterday for the immediate establishment of an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital. Otherwise, the statement said, "there will never be peace and stability in the region or the world."

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