U.S. envoys head to Mideast amid reports of new violence

Mission seeks cease-fire, but Israelis, Palestinians offer somber forecasts

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

JERUSALEM - American envoys scheduled to arrive here tomorrow to end the deadly Israeli-Palestinian conflict will have to broker a cease-fire against a backdrop of fresh violence in a region where many do not appear ready for peace.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he doubts that the visit will lead to a long-term diplomatic solution, while Palestinian leaders say that if the United States fails in this latest effort, then all hope for calm in the Middle East might be lost.

Each side contends that it has been victimized by the brutal acts of the other, prolonging a cycle of violence.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Friday that the American team will succeed "if the two sides finally come to the realization that the only thing we see day after day are dead Israelis and dead Palestinians, and this is taking us nowhere."

The team's point man is retired Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, former head of the U.S. Central Command, who is well-versed in the Middle East and Persian Gulf and is known as a tough field commander who is also gifted in the tricky affairs of politics.

In Israel, Zinni will have to force the Israelis and the Palestinians to make painful concessions even as each feels it's the other's turn to make a move. He will have to do more than reprimand each side for its failures, because such diplomatic rhetoric has repeatedly failed in the past.

Zinni will step off the plane into a cauldron that once again threatens to explode. Last night, Palestinians launched mortars into a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, killing one Israeli. Also, Palestinians opened fire on the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, damaging several homes. The shooting breaks a cease-fire set as a condition for Israeli troops' withdrawal from Bethlehem late last month. Yesterday's violence follows a two-day spurt that left 12 Palestinians dead Thursday and Friday.

The toll includes five schoolchildren killed by an Israeli bomb discovered in a field in the southern Gaza Strip and the top military leader of the radical Islamic group Hamas, who was killed by an Israeli missile strike. Two of his close associates also died in the attack.

Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, 34, had long been targeted by Israel for leading a group that has claimed responsibility for numerous suicide bombings that have killed scores of Israelis since 1997 - including two that year that left 42 Israelis dead, and two this year, at Sbarro's in Jerusalem and a disco in Tel Aviv, that killed a total of 37.

Hamas, which is growing in popularity and which opposes peace talks with Israel, vowed revenge for Hanoud's death, saying in a statement that "the punishment for this criminal enemy is coming, without any doubt."

Tens of thousands of Palestinians marched in Hanoud's funeral yesterday and attended a Hamas rally in Gaza, where protesters promised, "Revenge will be ours soon, powerfully and in Tel Aviv."

Israeli officials said they fired missiles at Hanoud's taxi because Palestinian officials have refused to arrest him. He was released from a Palestinian prison in August last year after Israeli warplanes bombed the jail in an apparent attempt to assassinate him

Palestinian leaders said the missile strike, coming days before Zinni's scheduled arrival, was a deliberate attempt to sabotage U.S. peace efforts. "We hope that the American team will realize that this is a deliberate attempt by Israel to escalate the violence, hoping that the Palestinians will retaliate," said Ziad Abu Amr, a member of the Palestinian parliament representing Gaza. "Then they can say, `Look, there is no cease-fire, and we can't proceed with the American ideas.'"

Israeli officials denied that accusation and said they struck at Hanoud, who has survived several assassination attempts, at their first opportunity. They said he was planning more attacks.

Sharon, speaking to a group of his Likud Party members in Jerusalem on Friday, said he will not be intimidated by any American delegation into making compromises on the security of his citizens.

He has continually defied U.S. concerns about assassinations and sending troops into Palestinian-controlled areas. As of this weekend, the army occupied parts of the West Bank city of Jenin, which it entered Oct. 18.

Last week, Sharon vowed to expand two Jewish settlements in the West Bank and build permanent houses in another in Hebron, again going against the wishes of the United States, which has called for an end to such activity.

"Whoever thinks that as a result of this [delegation visit] there will be a far-reaching diplomatic arrangement is mistaken," Sharon told the Likud group. "This is a prolonged process, whose beginning is a complete cease-fire. If the American envoys succeed in achieving a cease-fire, we'll continue with the outline."

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