Peres unrelenting in cease-fire quest

Israeli foreign chief at odds with Sharon

March 07, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres may be one of the few Israeli officials left who believe there is a chance for peace in the Middle East.

With fighting at unprecedented levels and casualties mounting, Peres remains a member of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government despite sharp disagreements over how to end the Palestinian uprising.

Sharon, 73, insists that intensified military action will force an end to the violence. Peres, 78, insists that the violence can be ended only through talks.

"We are in an extremely grave situation," a dejected-sounding Peres told reporters yesterday. "There is too much blood, too many victims and too much desperation. But as long as there is the slightest chance for a cease-fire, I shall stay and try to achieve it."

Peres conceded that Sharon might only be pretending to be interested in Peres' peace efforts, to prove to critics that the government hasn't totally given up seeking a political solution. But Peres, criticized by members of his own Labor Party for being manipulated by Sharon, said he is going to try anyway.

"We don't need a war to make peace," Peres said. "We need peace to prevent a war."

He and Sharon could hardly be more at odds.

Sharon, criticized by Israelis for failing to restore order and for lacking a clear strategy, appears to have chosen a strategy with which he is comfortable: attack the Palestinians until they demand a cease-fire.

"Those who speak of political horizons should look at the security horizon," Sharon told reporters this week. "The aim is to increase the number of losses on the other side. Only after they've been battered will we be able to conduct talks."

"This is a really tough war we are in," he told troops yesterday at a military checkpoint. He pledged that Israel would strike "without letup" until Palestinian attacks end.

By last night, the death toll of the last seven days neared 100, with 32 Israelis and at least 67 Palestinians killed.

Israeli troops yesterday attacked the Gaza Strip from five directions, after Palestinians fired a rocket that injured two children in Israel and damaged a house. Twelve Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers were killed in battles waged with warplanes, helicopters, tanks, gunboats and ground troops. The army described the assault as the largest action in 17 months of fighting.

Israel aimed missiles at Palestinian government buildings in the Gaza Strip, including the general intelligence compound in Gaza City just as its chief, Amin al-Hindi, was pulling into the driveway for a meeting with a dozen members of his staff. No one was injured, but Hindi accused Israel of trying to assassinate the entire group.

Army officials would not say last night why they attacked Hindi's building, the headquarters for Arafat's 30,000-strong security force, which has not been directly involved in the fighting. Hindi is considered a moderate and has been courted by U.S. intelligence agencies. An army source said that "every place we hit is an entity that supports terror."

Bombs that hit a security building also damaged Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's seaside villa in Gaza City and a United Nations school for the blind, injuring three young students.

In the West Bank, Israeli police shot and killed two Palestinians in Qalqiliya who were suspected of trying to carry out an attack. And four Palestinian children were wounded by gunfire, two critically, as they walked to their school through what Israel said was a gun battle.

On a highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that cuts through the West Bank, police opened fire on a car they said was suspicious, wounding two Israeli Arabs.

Several shooting attacks were reported on West Bank roads, which have become shooting ranges for Palestinian gunmen aiming at Israeli cars. All Palestinian traffic has been banned between cities and villages in the West Bank.

Sharon's security cabinet has given the army almost carte blanche to conduct military operations, and its commanders are considering calling up more reservists. Yesterday, the government eased gun permit restrictions and urged more citizens to carry weapons. Armed guards have been posted at all theaters, grocery stores, banks, malls and gas stations.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, testifying yesterday at a House subcommittee meeting in Washington, said Arafat could do more to end the violence, but also warned that he believes Sharon's strategy would fail.

"If you declare war on the Palestinians and think you can solve the problem by seeing how many Palestinians can be killed - I don't know that leads us anywhere," he said.

"Mr. Sharon has to take a hard look at his policies and see if they can work," Powell said. "I don't think declaring war on Palestinians will work. ... Both sides are following policies that will lead to more violence."

No end to the fighting is in sight, as each side insists it is determined to get its way by force.

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