Attacks by Israel blight US peace mission

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America's latest diplomatic initiative to revive the Middle East peace process got off to an ominous start yesterday when Israeli forces fired rockets at Palestinian security positions near Gaza City and shot dead a Palestinian teenager in Bethlehem.

The helicopter attacks destroyed buildings belonging to Yasser Arafat's Fatah group. A third attack was reported against Palestinian security positions near a refugee camp in southern Gaza.

The young Palestinian, aged 13, was killed when Israeli troops opened fire on a demonstration organised by the militant Hamas group near Rachel's Tomb. Palestinian witnesses said demonstrators had thrown rocks at soldiers guarding the shrine.

The Israelis said the attacks in Gaza were in retaliation for a Palestinian mortar attack on Saturday on a Jewish settlement which killed one Israeli soldier.

The unbroken cycle of violence formed a depressing backdrop to the visit by the two US envoys, the former US Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni and the Assistant Secretary of State William Burns.

They were expected to arrive in the region today on a mission to revive the dormant Middle East peace process and, so Washington hopes, defuse the overwhelming hostility in the Arab world to the US-led bombing campaign in Afghanistan

General Abdel-Razek al-Majaydeh, the Palestinian security chief in the Gaza Strip, said Israel's missile strikes had destroyed intelligence, navy and police positions, as well as the offices of the Fatah faction in Deir el-Balah. "This military escalation came at this time to sabotage and block the way of American efforts to try to bring calm to the area," he said.

Palestinian officials said the latest assaults confirmed their suspicion that the right-wing Israeli government of Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister, has no real interest in calming tension or in restarting peace talks.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian Information Minister, said Israel was trying to scupper the American initiative before it started. "Sharon is trying to drown these efforts in a sea of blood," he said.

About 50,000 Palestinians took part in a funeral at the weekend for Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, a leader of Hamas, who was killed by an Israeli missile strike near the West Bank town of Nablus on Friday.

Israel's Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, described Hanoud as a "professional terrorist" and defended the killing as an act of self defence.

There were stronger words in Jenin, where the local Hamas leader, Teissir Imran, told mourners Mr Sharon had "opened the door to hell for himself and his people".

The pressing task for the American envoys is to arrange a truce as the first step towards reviving peace talks which broke down in January.

Richard Bouche, the US State Department spokesman, said President George Bush had told them that their job was to "help the parties move forward, help them come to the understandings that create a real ceasefire, that's the first goal."

Mr Burns is expected to travel throughout the region while General Zinni – America's senior adviser on the Middle East – will stay in Israel and the Palestinian territories. They hope to have a ceasefire in place before Mr Sharon visits Washington on 3 December.

Israel is demanding seven days with no violence before it will fully withdraw its forces from Palestinian-controlled areas.

The Palestinian Authority has urged its people to encourage the latest round of diplomacy and rise above the temptation to retaliate. They should "think deeply about these Israeli plans", officials said, and "turn their anger and pain into steadfastness".