Israel, Palestinians resume truce talks

Both sides fear militants want to sabotage effort

closures set amid alerts

February 12, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israeli and Palestinian leaders have resumed cease-fire talks, but both sides fear that Palestinian militant groups are trying to sabotage negotiations before tangible results can be realized.

The Israeli army said security forces are pursuing an unprecedented number of warnings of imminent suicide bombings, a spike that coincided with the publicizing this weekend of the once-secret truce meetings.

"I'm sure that not all the terrorist organizations are happy with the fact that negotiations are going on," said Capt. Sharon Feingold, a spokeswoman for the Israeli army.

Yesterday, troops locked the West Bank and Gaza Strip under a tight military blockade. The "total closure" of the West Bank and Gaza, as the army described it, is one of the broadest of the 28-month conflict.

It prevents nearly all travel by Palestinians into Israel and between their own cities and villages during the four-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, or feast of the sacrifice.

Feingold said at least 50 bombing alerts have been sounded. "We cannot take a chance," she said. "That is why we have sealed off the West Bank and Gaza until the holiday is over."

Yesterday saw its share of violence, according to Associated Press reports. Israeli soldiers, searching for militants in the West Bank town of Qalqilya, shot and killed an 8-year-old boy, Palestinians said. The Israelis said they opened fire after Palestinians assaulted them with firebombs.

In Bethlehem, Palestinians fired on an army jeep near the Church of the Nativity, Israeli officers said, killing an Israeli.

On Sunday, a leader of the militant group Hamas, speaking to reporters in Gaza, said meetings to discuss a cease-fire encourage the Israelis "to perpetrate more crimes against our people and to shed our blood. These meetings harm the higher national interests of the Palestinian people."

Without a cease-fire, the only way for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to end the threat of militant attacks to Israel's satisfaction is to confront Hamas, which he has been unwilling to do for fear of a violent showdown.

Last week, a Hamas leader issued what was taken by Palestinian leaders as a direct challenge to Arafat, by saying Hamas, which enjoys widespread popularity in Gaza, was ready to lead the Palestinian people.

"We are ready politically, financially and socially to lead the Palestinian people," Mahmoud Zahar told the Associated Press. Other leaders quickly distanced themselves from the statement, saying they had no intention of taking control other than through elections.

The Palestinian Authority concluded that Hamas has decided to end its attacks against Israel for the time being as it contemplates a political coup against Arafat's mainstream Fatah faction.

Not everyone in Arafat's Cabinet agrees that the violence will indeed end. An attempt last month by Egyptian leaders to get all militant factions to agree to a cease-fire failed.

"Hamas still thinks they can get rid of us and the Israelis," said one of Arafat's top aides, Nabil Shaath, in an interview this week in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "They still think they can defeat Israel militarily, or at least defeat their will."

Shaath, who serves as minister of planning and international cooperation, said Arafat wanted the Cairo meetings to succeed "so that he would get the best of all possible worlds - avoid a civil war and head back to peace with the Israelis. But so far, it has not produced much."

The cease-fire meetings were to continue last night but were postponed for technical reasons.

Palestinian Authority Interior Minister Hani al-Hasan, who controls the Palestinian security services, was to meet with Dov Weisglass, a top aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, to discuss a possible phased withdrawal of Israeli troops. All but one West Bank city has been locked under military occupation since last summer.

Israeli leaders say they are pleased with efforts last week by Palestinian police in the Gaza Strip to prevent Hamas from launching crude missiles and indicate that if such measures are replicated in the West Bank, the army would reciprocate.

But with warnings of new violence - and more police patrols and roadblocks - the anxiety level is rising on Israeli streets. The most recent suicide bombing in Israel occurred a month ago in Tel Aviv, when 23 people were killed in an attack by Islamic Jihad. Hamas has not struck since November, when a suicide bomber blew up a bus in Jerusalem, killing 11 passengers.

Authorities have made dozens of arrests in recent days, confiscating a bomb hidden in a suitcase from a Ramallah hotel and a suicide bomb belt hidden in a toilet at a mosque in an Arab-Israeli city.

While one of the alleged would-be suicide bombers arrested was from Hamas, the army said the rest were linked to the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed faction of Arafat's Fatah party, or the Islamic Jihad.

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