Barak steps up attacks on West Bank militants

As the conflict claims its first foreign victim, the European Union-led talks in Marseilles show the two sides as far apart as ever
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The Independent Online

The Middle East mini-war, now entering its eighth week, has claimed its first foreign victim. Harald Fischer, 68 a German nurse and chiropractor, was buried yesterday, 14 hours after he was cut down during a night attack by Israeli helicopter gunships on the West Bank hill town of Beit Jalla.

The Middle East mini-war, now entering its eighth week, has claimed its first foreign victim. Harald Fischer, 68 a German nurse and chiropractor, was buried yesterday, 14 hours after he was cut down during a night attack by Israeli helicopter gunships on the West Bank hill town of Beit Jalla.

Mr Fischer had gone out alone to see if his neighbours, whose home had been hit by a rocket, needed first aid. His left leg was severed by either another rocket, or a large-calibre machinegun bullet. Palestinian police found his body two hours later.

Land and Water, a Palestinian human rights group, accused Israel of denying Palestinian ambulances access to the scene on the pretext that they might be smuggling weapons. Mr Fischer, who was born in Gummersbach, near Cologne, came to the West Bank 19 years ago to work with handicapped Palestinians. He lived in Beit Jalla, a predominantly Christian outpost of Bethlehem, with his Palestinian wife, Norma, and their three children, aged 10, 15 and 17.

German diplomats, in Ramallah, were among the 2,000 mourners, led by 30 clergy, who attended the funeral. To the solemn chime of church bells, the crowd chanted: "Christians and Muslims, all against the Israeli aggression."

An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman said: "We regret any injury to any innocent person, but Beit Jalla has been a source of fire against Jewish neighbourhoods in Jerusalem for a long time now. The army is obligated to respond against the sources of fire, in order to ensure the safety of our citizens."

The Israelis were retaliating for a rocket and machinegun attack on the neighbouring Jerusalem suburb of Gilo, built on land captured from Jordan in the 1967 war. A Palestinian rocket gutted a Jewish flat. One Beit Jalla building was demolished when Israel hit back, and seven Palestinians were wounded.

The onslaught, which began shortly before midnight, was part of a general escalation authorised by Prime Minister Ehud Barak's inner security cabinet, now determined to silence domestic critics by getting their retaliation in first. Beit Jalla apart, it was directed mainly at Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement and bases of its Tanzim militia, which Israel accuses of orchestrating the Intifada.

Israeli Air Force helicopters struck at Fatah targets in four West Bank cities, Hebron, Jericho, Tulkarm and Salfit, wounding 12 Palestinians. Two more Palestinians died yesterday. A boy aged 11 succumbed to wounds he got in clashes with Israeli troops in Gaza on Wednesday. And a young man was killed in the ongoing confrontation in Hebron.

According to the Palestinian Red Crescent, this brought the total Palestinian death toll in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the uprising erupted on 29 September to 208. In the same period, Israel has lost 24 soldiers and civilians.

Mr Barak tightened the economic screw yesterday, announcing that he had blocked the transfer of tax revenue, averaging $30m (£20m) a month, that Israel collects for the Palestinians. Much of the money goes to pay the salaries of civil servants and security personnel. Mr Arafat's national authority, which is being strangled by an Israeli blockade on the movement of people and goods, has not yet seen a cent of the $1bn emergency aid pledged by the Gulf oil states.

Although the prospects of a negotiated peace look bleaker, the US has not given up. Its veteran Middle East troubleshooter, Dennis Ross, was shuttling between Mr Arafat and Mr Barak in the desperate hope of convening yet another summit. President Bill Clinton is still striving for a miracle before he leaves office on 20 January.

Asked after meeting Mr Ross yesterday whether he still hoped for an agreement, Mr Arafat said: "We hope so." Mr Barak insists, however, that the Palestinians must first rein in their rioters and their gunmen. After his talks with the American mediator, the Prime Minister told Israel radio: "I told him to go to the other side and make it clear that Israel does not accept any dictates by violence from anyone."

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