Gains seen in peace effort

Progress reported despite 2 attacks by Palestinians

Hopes rise for quick truce

Cheney to arrive today on last leg of his Middle East tour

March 18, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Two Palestinian terror attacks less than two hours apart yesterday complicated efforts by a U.S. peace envoy to restore order in the Middle East, but officials said later that progress had been made toward a cease-fire.

A gunman opened fire in Kfar Saba, a suburb north of Tel Aviv, killing a teen-age girl and wounding at least nine before police shot him dead. In Jerusalem, a suicide bomber blew himself up in front of a city bus, but killed only himself.

U.S. mediator Anthony C. Zinni, a retired Marine general, continued his shuttle diplomacy, meeting yesterday with Israeli and Palestinian officials.

"It is critical that the Palestinian Authority take responsibility and act against terror, and punish those responsible," Zinni said. "Now is the time to get a cease-fire. ... There is no justification or excuse for terror."

Ahmed Qurei, a senior Palestinian negotiator, said Zinni would preside over a meeting of Israeli and Palestinian officials today to set a timetable for implementing the American disengagement proposals known as the Tenet plan.

The plan, proposed by CIA Director George J. Tenet, calls on both sides to resume the positions they held when the current fighting broke out on Sept. 28, 2000, and undertake extensive security cooperation.

It was not immediately clear whether a cease-fire would be announced at today's meeting.

Earlier in the day, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told his Cabinet: "The aim at this stage is to arrive as soon as possible at a cease-fire and the implementation of Tenet."

Zinni continued to demand that Sharon order his army to withdraw from all Palestinian territory invaded during a sweeping military offensive over the past two weeks.

Palestinian leaders have refused to meet with Israeli officials until the pullout is complete, and Israel says it will not withdraw its troops until Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat makes a concerted effort to prevent further terrorist attacks.

Israeli forces pulled out of several Palestinian areas on Friday, including the West Bank city of Ramallah, but remain in others, such as Bethlehem and neighboring Beit Jala, south of Jerusalem.

"If the Palestinians want to get the territories, they must be responsible for them," Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told state radio yesterday. Last night, local Israeli army commanders and Palestinian security officials met to discuss a further withdrawal from Palestinian territories. The army wants to make sure that if it pulls out, the Palestinians will prevent further attacks. Israeli army officials said they could complete a withdrawal tonight and that a cease-fire could be in place within 48 hours.

Both the Palestinians and the Israelis are trying to swing Zinni to their point of view. The Palestinians had the early momentum, as Zinni arrived with demands that Sharon halt his army campaign and withdraw the troops. But yesterday's incidents had Sharon talking tough again and forced Zinni to reprimand Arafat.

The renewed attacks follow a pattern all too familiar to Zinni, whose first attempt to broker a cease-fire in December ended in failure amid suicide bombings and shootings that left 33 Israelis dead in a matter of days.

Militant groups such as Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for yesterday's suicide bombing, and the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, view negotiations as a capitulation by Palestinian leaders. Their attacks are aimed as much at destroying any chance for a political solution as in retaliation for Israeli military operations.

But even militant groups that support peace talks have vowed to retaliate for Israel's army campaign that has left more than 170 Palestinians dead since March 1.

It was unclear last night whether Zinni, who met with Israeli President Moshe Katsav yesterday afternoon and with Arafat last night, was any closer to getting both sides to sit down face to face to discuss a truce.

Israeli tanks moved closer to Bethlehem's center yesterday, then withdrew to the outskirts. Clashes left one Palestinian gunman dead.

Tensions remain high. Israeli officials said they prevented up to eight suicide attacks Thursday, the day Zinni arrived, and two more early yesterday.

The town of Nahariya in western Galilee was virtually shut down all day yesterday as police closed streets and schools while they searched for a gunman believed to have infiltrated the area. Shops and restaurants in Jerusalem were nearly deserted.

The first attack was reported about 12:45 p.m. in Kfar Saba, a suburb north of Tel Aviv and close to the Palestinian city of Qalqilya, from which Israeli troops withdrew Friday at U.S. request.

Police said a Palestinian gunman, identified as Amar Abed Majid Shachrir, 26, of the northern West Bank city of Nablus, opened fire on a busy street near a police station and the courthouse. He emptied two magazines from his pistol, killing an 18-year-old girl and injuring at least nine others.

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