Barak and Arafat travel to Paris to try and win peace

Leaders arrive in Paris after a night of violence in which two Palestinians were killed
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Two Palestinians have been shot dead during overnight skirmishes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while Israeli and Palestinian leaders travelled to Paris for U.S.-arranged talks aimed at halting the conflict.

Two Palestinians have been shot dead during overnight skirmishes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while Israeli and Palestinian leaders travelled to Paris for U.S.-arranged talks aimed at halting the conflict.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat both planned separate meetings in the French capital with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in a high-level attempt to end six days of fighting that has claimed 58 lives and set back Middle East peacemaking.

But it was nott clear whether Arafat and Barak would meet face-to-face - or if the talks call a halt to the violence.

Four Palestinians and an Israeli Arab were killed and more than 200 injured on Tuesday in a series of firefights in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with Israeli forces calling in combat helicopters to assist besieged troops.

Two more Palestinians were fatally shot before dawn on Wednesday near the West Bank town of Ramallah, according to a hospital. The Israeli army confirmed an exchange of fire in the area overnight, but gave no information on casualties.

Three Israeli military outposts in the Gaza Strip also came under attack overnight, including an explosion near Dugit in the northern part of the strip. One soldier suffered moderate wounds, the army reported.

And in northern Israel, a large forest fire raged on Wednesday, one of more than 100 blazes that police believe have been set by Arab arsonists. Most have been extinguished.

The Palestinians have accused the Israelis of using excessive force that has resulted in the high casualty count, which includes more than 1,300 injured.

"The fire now is coming from only one side, from the Israeli side," said Hussein Sheik, a leader of Tanzim, a paramilitary group that is part of Arafat's Fatah faction. "This is the first time that I've seen the rock throwers facing tanks."

Israel has moved dozens of tanks into some of the most volatile areas in the West Bank and Gaza, though the army said they haven't taken part in the fighting.

Maj Gen Giora Eiland, the army chief in charge of operations, said the military was exercising restraint, but would not hesitate to use force when soldiers were endangered.

"We manage to act with great restraint in regard to everything that has to do with the use of weapons," Eiland said. He defended the use of helicopters, saying it was the most effective way to counter Palestinian militants firing down on Israeli forces from atop buildings.

"The use of combat helicopters naturally makes headlines, but was necessary in places where, from a tactical point, there was no better alternative," he said.

With the Israelis blasting away with heavy weapons, including rockets launched from helicopters, and with the Palestinians routinely firing automatic rifles, the intensity of the fighting sometimes resembles a war and has surpassed levels seen during the 1987-93 Palestinian uprising and three days of firefights in 1996.

"I have been dealing with such riots since 1987 and ... there have never been anything on this level - not when it comes to clashes and certainly not when it comes to the use of weapons," said Yisrael Yitzhak, commander of Israel's paramilitary border police in the West Bank.

Palestinian television has broadcast appeals in Hebrew to Israeli soldiers not to open fire, and a senior Palestinian official said an international inquiry into Israel's actions would be a condition of reviving the peace talks.

"We think that the Israeli crimes committed against our people attacked the heart of the peace process, " said Nabil Aburdeneh, a top aide to Arafat. But Barak's office said he "totally rejected the call for an international investigation."

The Paris talks were almost called off after Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath reportedly said Arafat had no intention of meeting with Barak in Paris. Barak informed the Americans that in this case, he would not go to Paris, the prime minister's office said.

The prime minister only relented after he was informed by U.S. mediators that Arafat was ready to see Barak, the statement said. The Palestinian leader only planned to meet separately with Albright, but that a three-way session - Arafat-Barak-Albright - was possible, said Aburdeneh.

The latest violence was sparked by last week's visit of Ariel Sharon, the leader of the hard-line opposition Likud party, to a Jerusalem site holy to Muslims and Jews. A defiant Sharon insisted he bore no responsibility.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said he wanted guarantees of protection for his people and an inquiry into the causes of violence that has swept the West Bank and Gaza before he would agree to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Arafat told reporters after a one-hour meeting with French President Jacques Chirac that a trilateral meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Barak, that had been announced in Paris, was not a sure thing.

"The meeting (with Barak) will depend on the one I will have with Albright," said Arafat, adding that a trilateral meeting was not yet on the agenda.

Asked what his conditions were, he said, "Protection and an international inquiry commission."

A senior Palestinian official has said an international inquiry into Israel's actions would be a condition of reviving the peace talks - a sentiment echoed by Chirac and U.S. President Bill Clinton in a phone conversation on Monday.

But Barak's office has said he "totally rejected the call for an international investigation."

Justice Minister Yossi Beilin told Israel radio that Israel did not agree "to put our fate in the hands of the world."

"I think that, if there are questions and if there are queries, we can answer them ourselves. We don't need a committee biased against Israel to investigate things," Beilin said.

She is due to meet Barak and Arafat separately. Chirac is also due to meet Barak separately.

Fighting broke out last week after an Israeli hardline leader, Ariel Sharon, visited one of Jerusalem's most hotly contested holy sites, which is revered by both Jews and Muslims.

State Department spokesman Philip Reeker, speaking from Washington, said CIA director George Tenet planned to join Albright in Paris. Reeker said Tenet will take part in discussions on security issues.

Arafat thanked France for "the great efforts they are making to stop the massacre, the serious massacre, which is being perpetrated against the Palestinian people and to save the peace process." The Palestinian leader said he planned to meet again later Wednesday with Chirac.

"I stressed to the President the importance of the French role to us, a role exercised with the United States and Egypt with the aim of stopping the virulent attacks against our people," he said.

France, which holds the European Union's six-month rotating presidency, has long sought a major role in the volatile region, where it once was a great colonial power.

As a day of frenetic diplomacy kicked off in Paris, there were no signs of the violence abating.

Two more Palestinians were fatally shot before dawn Wednesday near the West Bank town of Ramallah and three Israeli military outposts in the Gaza Strip also came under attack overnight.

Both sides have traded bitter accusations of blame for the worst violence to hit the region in four years, with Palestinians saying Sharon's visit was responsible and Israelis blaming an orchestrated Palestinian campaign to win concessions in peace talks.

Europe has pointed the finger of blame at Sharon, who visited a shrine, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Al Haram Ash-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary. The dispute over who will control the site is the main obstacle to a peace agreement.

Chirac has blamed the violence on an "irresponsible provocation" - a clear reference to Sharon's visit to the holy site.

Sharon, notorious among Palestinians for launching the bloody war against Arafat's forces in Lebanon in 1982, said he bore no responsibility.

After the Paris talks, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a key player in the Middle East peace process, is planning a leadership summit on Thursday. Barak and Arafat have both agreed to come, Mubarak said Tuesday.

Officials said the Paris talks would not just be a bid to stem the tide of violence.

"The meeting ... is a step in the direction of the renewal of the negotiations and not just the end of violence here," Israeli Acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami told Israel radio.

A diplomatic drive, led by U.S. President Bill Clinton, to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement had lost momentum even before the recent violence, stalling after a July summit in Camp David.

Comments