Barak offers independence in return for negotiations and an end to violence

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The Independent Online

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made the clearest offer yet of an independent state for the Palestinians but said it must be the result of negotiations and that the negotiations can only resume once the violence abates.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made the clearest offer yet of an independent state for the Palestinians but said it must be the result of negotiations and that the negotiations can only resume once the violence abates.

But the violence did not abate. An attack on Israeli customs officials killed one, and Barak said it called Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's intentions into question on the eve of meetings with U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Three Palestinian gunmen opened fire on an Israeli vehicle heading to an Israeli-controlled crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, killing a woman customs agent and lightly injuring her male colleague. Army rescuers came under fire as they evacuated the two.

In a statement, Barak said he viewed the attack "with great severity, especially on the eve of ... Arafat's trip to Washington. It calls into question the seriousness of Arafat's intentions to implement ... understandings and decrease violence in the region."

A group allied with the militant Islamic Jihad, a small organization opposed to the peace process, claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement faxed to The Associated Press in Damascus, Syria.

In retaliation, Israel shut down the crossing and Gaza's airport, which it jointly controls with the Palestinians.

Officials said they believed the gunmen came from the direction of the air field. The army has accused Arafat of smuggling in arms on his presidential jet - a charge Palestinians have dismissed as absurd.

Barak's pledge of a "viable Palestinian state" came in a long letter to the heads of all the world's governments, meant to explain Israel's policy in its weeks of conflict with the Palestinians.

The Israeli leader said he made far-reaching concessions during a Mideast summit at the U.S. presidential retreat of Camp David in July. "We could resume negotiations which - based on the ideas discussed at Camp David - will lead to the creation of a viable Palestinian state," Barak wrote in his letter Tuesday to world leaders, "or we can succumb to the route of violence and unilateral Palestinian action."

If the Palestinians choose violence, he warned, "Israel will be forced to take measures to ensure the security of our citizens."

In the past, Barak has said he would not rule out the creation of a Palestinian state, but Tuesday's statement was his clearest promise yet of eventual Palestinian independence. Barak's letter appeared, in part, aimed at undercutting possible world support for a unilateral Palestinian proclamation of independence.

The chances for such support have been undercut by Western criticism that the Palestinians are sending youths to the frontlines as a means of garnering world sympathy. Two Palestinian teen-agers died overnight of wounds sustained earlier in the conflict.

The Palestinian Authority said it is working to persuade teen-agers to stay out of confrontations with Israeli soldiers. At least 170 people have been killed in the clashes that began Sept. 28, most of them Palestinians, including many teen-agers.

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo wrote to an Israeli human rights group that children are being told "to stay away from flash points," but he blamed Israel for the casualties. "Why do they respond to rocks with rockets?" he wrote.

Preparing for his meeting with Clinton Thursday, Arafat said he is seeking a 2,000-strong U.N. force to protect his people from Israeli soldiers.

The U.N. Security Council was to discuss the Palestinian request Wednesday. Barak rejected the idea, charging that posting an international force would be a "reward for violence."

Arafat aide Nabil Aburdeneh said Arafat will ask Clinton to work to "stop the Israeli use of force against the Palestinians immediately."

Arafat planned talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and British Prime Minister Tony Blair on his way to Washington.

Barak is to meet Clinton on Sunday. Barak's aides downplayed the prospects of a renewal of negotiations as a result of the talks in Washington. Peace talks have been stalled since an unsuccessful summit meeting at the Camp David presidential retreat in July.

Media reports after the failed summit said that Barak offered Arafat a state in about 90 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and control over Palestinian sections of Jerusalem. Arafat rejected the offer, insisting on full sovereignty over most of the Old City of Jerusalem, including holy sites common to Muslims and Jews.