Diplomats open new effort on Mideast peace

Israel tightens security, continues army raids into Palestinian areas

May 31, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

JERUSALEM - Diplomats began arriving here yesterday in renewed efforts to find a way out of the deadly impasse between Israel and the Palestinians, even as the Israeli army continued what have become nearly daily raids into Palestinian territory.

The first to arrive was William J. Burns, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, who flew in yesterday from Cairo, Egypt, and met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah. Today he is to see Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Sharon, riding huge poll numbers, got another boost yesterday when the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party said it would rejoin his government and vote for a belt-tightening economic package. Last week, Sharon dismissed Shas ministers when the party opposed the package, though the 17 seats the party holds in the fragmented parliament are crucial to holding a majority.

Even as the Sharon government continued to tighten security measures, the authorities, in an announcement certain to unsettle Israelis, said last night that they had arrested a Palestinian and his Jewish Israeli wife as prime suspects in helping organize the suicide bombing May 22 in Rishon Letzion.

They were identified as Ibrahim Sarahana, 33, from the Bethlehem area, and Marina Pinski, 26, who immigrated here from Russia 11 years ago. They were said to have driven the 16-year-old suicide bomber to the mall, which Sarahana chose as a target.

"Such complicity on the part of Israeli Jews is almost unheard of," Reuters quoted the Israeli police spokesman as saying.

Before dawn, Israel sent tanks and dozens of armored personnel carriers and jeeps into the West Bank city of Hebron, where they arrested four Palestinians. They included an Islamic Jihad leader, Muhammad Sider, who Palestinian officials said had been the target of two Israeli assassination attempts.

The army pulled out of Hebron by midday and left Bethlehem last night, after four days of house-to-house searches and maintaining sniper positions around Manger Square.

The army said it had detained six Palestinians in a village near Tulkarm, and had gone back into Jenin and imposed a curfew on the city. At least one explosion was heard there. There was skirmishing in Gaza, with 11 Palestinians reported wounded.

"Humanitarian problems, the daily humiliation that ordinary Palestinians suffer under occupation are getting worse every day," Burns told reporters during a stopover in Cairo, where he met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak before arriving in Israel.

One aspect of what Palestinians see as that humiliation - roadblocks - has become increasingly evident. All week there have been lines lasting hours at the two checkpoints leading from Ramallah to Jerusalem, and new roadblocks have been set up in the northern districts of the city.

Burns is to be joined here on Monday by CIA Director George J. Tenet, who is charged with reforming the Palestinian Authority and its security forces. Other diplomatic visitors include Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of Germany and, in the coming days, the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and Osama al-Baz, the Egyptian presidential adviser, who is to arrive here ahead of a visit to Washington by Mubarak.

In a nod to the pressure for reform, the Palestinian Authority formally announced yesterday that Arafat had finally signed the Basic Law, a kind of constitution, that had been voted by the Palestinian legislature and had sat, unapproved, on his desk for five years.

But in the murky fashion that characterizes Arafat's rule, it turned out that while he signed the paper late Tuesday night, there are several versions of the bill, and no one - not the legislators nor Palestinian reformers outside Arafat's circle, nor his advisers - knew exactly what it was that he had signed.

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