Terror clouds peace effort

Palestinians attack Israel twice, upstage U.S. envoy's mission

Zinni: "No excuse for terror"

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 upstaged efforts by a U.S. peace envoy to restore order in the Middle East and threatened to inflame the region anew.

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. He said the new attacks would not deter his efforts to secure a cease-fire.

"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."

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

Palestinian leaders refuse 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.

Other Israeli leaders vowed to retaliate for any terror attacks even if truce talks begin.

"Israel has offered a cease-fire, pulled back most of its forces in good faith, and this seems to be the answer Israel is receiving." said Sharon's adviser, Dore Gold.

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 have 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. Such a meeting does not appear likely until Israeli troops leave Palestinian territory.

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 the request of the United States.

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.

The attack occurred in a mixed residential and business neighborhood. Windows of cars and shops were shattered, six bullets hit the front of a Chinese restaurant, and children in a nearby school hid in their building.

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