U.S. peace envoy gets look at violence in Middle East

Palestinian gunmen kill 2, wound dozens in Afula marketplace

November 28, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Palestinian gunmen shot and killed two Israelis at an outdoor market yesterday, wounded more than 30 and inadvertently gave a new U.S. peace envoy a firsthand look at the violence he is trying to stop.

The attack, carried out jointly by two Palestinian militant groups in the northern city of Afula, took place as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was giving U.S. mediator Anthony C. Zinni a helicopter tour of the Jordan river valley and the Sea of Galilee.

Upon learning of the shooting, Sharon ordered the helicopter to Afula, where it arrived moments after police shot the gunmen dead near a market and a bus station, but in time for Zinni to hover over streams of ambulances racing to the wounded.

Israeli officials quickly used the attack to try to persuade Zinni, a retired Marine Corps general, that the violence is the fault of Palestinians, and that it is they, not the Israelis, who must be pressed to take action first.

"This is the way the Palestinians welcome people," said Avi Pazner, an Israeli government spokesman. "It was a message to General Zinni that they couldn't care less about America's effort for a cease-fire."

An Israeli general said last night that his government's goal is to show Zinni "how good we are and how bad the Palestinians are."

Zinni, who is scheduled to tour the West Bank with Palestinian officials today, expressed condolences to the victims in Afula but gave no hint of who he blames for the violence or how he might try to end the 14-month conflict.

"I learned a lot," he told reporters before sitting down to dinner with Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer last night in Tel Aviv. "It was a long day, but a very valuable day."

A U.S. diplomatic source said Zinni "is prepared to stay as long as it takes. He knows he has a difficult task ahead of him."

During dinner, officials learned of an attack in the Gaza Strip, which Zinni had flown over after leaving Afula. A Palestinian gunman fired at a convoy of Israeli cars, hitting one of the vehicles. A woman passenger was killed, and two adults and a 2-year-old child were injured.

The Israeli army said last night that soldiers shot and killed the gunmen. The vehicles were headed to the Jewish settlement of Gush Katif, a frequent target of Palestinian militants, and where an Israeli soldier was killed Saturday night in a mortar attack.

Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator who is scheduled to meet with Zinni today, condemned the shootings in Afula. But he blamed Israel for triggering the attack by escalating military actions in recent days that left 12 Palestinians dead, including five schoolchildren and a popular militant leader who was assassinated.

"Sharon's government has tried every possible thing to undermine America's effort," Erekat said in an interview. "Bullets breed bullets. Assassinations breed assassinations. This shooting [in Afula] just reflects the real need to put an end to this."

Erekat said he will tell Zinni that incidents such as yesterday's shootings are the result of Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Erekat said, was giving a "100 percent effort" to rein in militants.

The attack in Afula occurred about 11:30 a.m. Witnesses said two men with Kalashnikov rifles fired indiscriminately, starting in the bus station, then walking to the market next door.

A woman apparently tried to tackle one of the gunmen from behind and was shot and wounded. Police said one victim was shot in the head at point-blank range. Another ran after being shot, but was chased down in a parking lot and killed.

The Israeli victims were identified as Michal Mor, 27, of Afula, and Noam Gozovsky, 23, of Ramat Svi.

Authorities said two reserve army soldiers and two police officers chased the gunmen, cornered them in a dead-end alley and killed them during a firefight.

The gunmen were identified as Mustafa Abu Srieh, 21, and Abdel Karim Abu Nafa, 20, both from a refugee camp in the northern West Bank city of Jenin. Nafa was a Palestinian police officer.

The Associated Press reported that one of the bodies was covered with an old Sharon election banner proclaiming: "Only Sharon will bring peace."

Two groups claimed joint responsibility for the attack: Islamic Jihad and the militant wing of Arafat's Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The groups issued a videotape yesterday showing the gunmen, with Srieh saying: "We hope our people will continue in the path of holy war." He vowed that the Afula attack would be the beginning of a new terror campaign.

The Afula shooting came hours after the Israeli army pulled out of Jenin, 10 miles south, one of six Palestinian cities the Israeli army entered six weeks ago. Army commanders had said Sunday that they would remain in Jenin because of threats of terrorist attacks, but Sharon decided to move the troops outside the city as a goodwill gesture marking Zinni's arrival.

"Many people believe we made a big mistake when we left Jenin," said Pazner, the Israeli government spokesman. "It was a gesture of generosity, and this proves that such things don't work."

Sharon told Zinni the attack proved that Palestinian leaders are unwilling to stop the violence.

"Arafat has formed a coalition of terror," Sharon told the envoy, according to U.S. and Israeli sources. The sources said Sharon assured Zinni that he wants the fighting to stop but stood firm in his demand for seven days of "absolute quiet" before peace talks can begin.

U.S. officials oppose Sharon's precondition, saying one gunman could disrupt the peace process. U.S. officials declined to say how Zinni responded to Sharon's remarks.

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