Blood flows as Middle East summit opens

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The Independent Online

An emergency summit convened to coax the Middle East from the brink of prolonged and wider violence was only a few hours old yesterday before it was engulfed by gloom and more bloodshed.

An emergency summit convened to coax the Middle East from the brink of prolonged and wider violence was only a few hours old yesterday before it was engulfed by gloom and more bloodshed.

As night fell after a day of negotiations in Egypt's balmy Sharm el-Sheikh resort, Israeli officials indicated agreement had been reached on a cessation of hostilities in the immediate conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. "In the circumstances, even that would be a big achievement," said one spokesman.

But whether the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, is in a position to deliver such a ceasefire, let alone to restore moves towards salvaging moribund peace negotiations, is in serious doubt. President Bill Clinton said the summit "cannot afford to fail", and appealed to everyone "to move beyond blame". But it was clear 18 days of bloodshed have unearthed far too much latent malice, and created far too much resentment, for this to be possible.

As he was speaking, a military spokesman in Israel was sending e-mails inviting journalists to view a video of "Palestinian incitement to violence" - an imam telling his congregation to go out and kill Jews - and handing out profiles of alleged Palestinian "terrorists".

Earlier, the summit's host, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, had been complaining - to thunderous looks from Ehud Barak - about "the military aggression of the Israelis against the Palestinians".

Soon afterwards the streets of Gaza and the West Bank were filling with demonstrators, some in black masks and carrying Kalashnikovs. Now there was a new tactic - Israeli snipers apparently using silencers and smaller .22 bullets to subdue the crowds in the hope of avoiding deaths on the day of the talks.

On the stark streets of the occupied territories, there was precious little evidence the mood was ripe for a ceasefire, let alone lasting peace. All day, there were riots, albeit significantly less than at the height of the unrest.

By mid-afternoon, one Palestinian policeman had been killed, and at least 63 Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers injured. Palestinians in Bethlehem said a 14-year-old boy was brain-dead after being shot in the head with a rubber bullet. A 13-year-old was reported dead in Hebron.

More than ever, Israelis believe that at the July Camp David summit Mr Arafat rejected the best deal he is likely to get, an offer of extreme generosity, in Israel's eyes, and that he therefore has no interest in peace.

The possibility that Mr Barak will return home to create an emergency government, embracing the right-wing Likud party led by Ariel Sharon, looms large

It was hardly surprising, that the world's high flyers in Middle East diplomacy - Mr Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Kofi Annan, King Abdullah ll of Jordan and Mr Mubarak - arrived in Sharm el-Sheikh knowing they would have to aim low. They sought not to make history, but to establish stop-gap measures to slow the violence.

Both sides have laid out their terms for this - the Palestinians want an end to closure of the occupied territories and the military blockade of their towns, plus an international inquiry into the causes of the violence. The Israelis want the Palestinian police to stop shooting at them, and the arrest of Hamas and Jihad activists recently released from Palestinian prisons, and a joint security mechanism to stop more bloodshed.

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