Barak steps up war of words

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The Independent Online

Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories were braced for more bloodshed after Ehud Barak, the enfeebled Prime Minister, ordered "timeout" from the peace negotiations yesterday in an attempt to solicit right-wing support.

Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories were braced for more bloodshed after Ehud Barak, the enfeebled Prime Minister, ordered "timeout" from the peace negotiations yesterday in an attempt to solicit right-wing support.

The response by the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, was one of anger. Anyone blocking his people's path to anindependent state with Jerusalem as its capital, he said, "can go to hell".

At least three Palestinian demonstrators, one aged 14, died as Israeli troops fired at trouble spots in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, bringing the death toll in three weeks of violence to 122, 34 of them under the age of 18 and all but eight of them Palestinians or Israeli Arabs. There was heavy firing on the outskirts of Jerusalem last night after at least 12 apartment buildings in the Israeli settlement of Gilo, overlooking Bethlehem, were hit by bursts from the village of Beit Jala, on the opposite hillside. After a warning to Beit Jala residents to evacuate, Israeli helicopter gunships raked the area with heavy machine-gun fire. Israeli army radio said several Palestinians were wounded.

Mr Arafat's anger appeared to dash Israeli hopes that, with the weekend summit of the Arab League out of the way, he would issue an unequivocal call for calm, and order Palestinian police and gunmen to stop firing on Israeli troops.

The latest deaths came as Mr Barak condemned the "language of threat" by the Arab leaders. The rare meeting ended with harsh words for "barbaric" Israel but fell far short of Palestinian expectations. Arab leaders refused to cut ties with Israel despite outrage at the scale of Palestinian casualties.

Few moves to resolve the conflict can be expected from the Israeli side in the coming week as Mr Barak struggles to find parliamentary support before the Knesset returns next Monday. His main hope of a majority is to join forces with Ariel Sharon, the hardline Likud leader who set off the crisis when he visited the Haram al-Sharif, one of Islam's holiest sites, in Jerusalem's old city on 28 September. Mr Sharon is demanding a slowdown in the seven-year-old peace process, and Mr Barak obliged, despite strong criticism from some of his own Cabinet.

Mr Barak first floated the idea of a time-out in the peace negotiations last week, saying he would wait for the outcome of the Arab summit before deciding. Although the summit stopped short of strong action against Israel, the response of the Israeli government became tougher as the day went on.

The statement of the 22 leaders meeting in Cairo accused Israel of massacring Palestinians and called for war crimes trials of those responsible. But it did not call for Egypt and Jordan, which have full diplomatic relations with Israel, to sever their ties, prompting a walkout by the Libyan delegation.

The communiqué, read out by the Arab League secretary general, Esmat Abdel-Meguid, said Arabs "hold Israel responsible for any steps taken in regard to relations with Israel by Arab countries, including their cancellation". The first to respond was Tunisia, which said it would close its low-level representative office in Israel.

Initially, Mr Barak's office issued a statement praising the summit host, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, for making "considerable effort to maintain a balanced approach, which calls for peace and restraint, instead of an extremist stance". A later "clarification" sought to put the onus on the Palestinians to "honour their commitments to halt the violence and incitement and to immediately restore calm and order before there is - Heaven forbid - an additional escalation". A "second clarification" added tougher language: "Israel utterly rejects the language of threats used at the Arab summit ... and condemns the call for continued violence against it."

A government spokesman, Nachman Shai, said afterwards that Israel "had to take a break and reconsider the situation", because Mr Arafat "is heading towards a continuation of the armed struggle.

"It does not mean that Israel is withdrawing its support and commitment to the peace process," he said. "All past and present commitments with Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinians will be respected."

In effect, the peace process has been on hold since the unrest began, but Mr Barak's declaration is unlikely to do anything to ease the atmosphere on the streets.

The US President, Bill Clinton, who brokered the Sharmel-Sheikh agreement, telephoned the Israeli Prime Minister last night, having spoken to Mr Arafat as well over the weekend. Israeli sources say the Palestinian leader has decided to wait for the outcome of the US presidential election on 7 November before trying to call off the unrest.Mr Arafat may also be aware that any appeal by him to halt the protests could well go unheeded, undermining his authority.