Fresh fighting as peace talks start

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Street violence continued today in the volatile West Bank despite Palestinian and Israeli leaders meeting face-to-face for peace talks.

Street violence continued today in the volatile West Bank despite Palestinian and Israeli leaders meeting face-to-face for peace talks.

Palestinian militiamen opened fire on Israeli soldiers during a protest march, and rock-throwing clashes erupted elsewhere in the Palestinian areas.

US President Bill Clinton, addressing the summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, urged both sides to work hard to end the violence.

"We cannot afford to fail. The future of the peace process and the stability of the region are at stake. We have to move beyond blame," Clinton said.

South of the West Bank town of Nablus, about 1,500 Palestinians marched toward an Israeli army checkpoint.

About 500 broke away from the march and began throwing stones at three Israeli army jeeps. Several gunmen, shooting from olive groves, fired on Israeli soldiers, drawing return fire.

Two Palestinians were injured, witnesses said.

Across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, thousands of Palestinians joined protests against a renewal of contacts with Israel.

"Yes to the intefadeh (uprising), not to the summit," read a banner by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction, raised during a funeral procession in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

In the West Bank towns of Hebron and Bethlehem, as well as Khan Yunis in Gaza, rock-throwing clashes erupted, with Israeli soldiers who fired rubber-coated steel pellets.

In the Palestinian areas, many residents either objected to Arafat attending the summit or said little would come of it.

"We're still a people under siege," said Palestinian moneychanger Sosian Adawi, one of hundreds of mourners attending the Ramallah funeral of Raed Jaoud, 30, who died Sunday after being injured in a clash with Israeli troops last week.

"I don't think it (the summit) will be successful."

In Hebron, a masked gunman fired shots in the air. "Those bullets are for Israel," said the gunman, who would only give his first name, Ali.

"That's what we want from our president. We are behind Arafat."

Resentment was deepened by Israel's military siege that is keeping hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from jobs and schools.

Residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip are barred from entering Israel. In addition, those living in the West Bank cannot leave their communities, with Israeli army roadblocks ringing each town.

In Hebron, an added internal closure has kept thousands of Palestinians, who live in close proximity to a handful of Jewish settlers, under an around-the-clock curfew.

Many frustrated Palestinians believe Arafat will face intense pressure to sign an unfavorable agreement at the summit, also attended by the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and the United Nations.

Israelis were equally skeptical that the gathering would bring an end to the violence. Many had spent the Sukkot holiday weekend, normally a time of trips and picnics, indoors, fearing possible terror attacks by Islamic militants.

Heading into the summit, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said Israel may have to wait for a change in the Palestinian leadership to strike an accord.

"All his life, he (Arafat) believed that Palestine would be liberated with blood and fire," commentator Nahum Barnea wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily.

"The question is how to make sure that his successor is different from him."

Several informal cease-fires to end the unrest have collapsed so far, and marathon meetings October 4 in Paris failed to get the leaders to come to terms on a truce.

The violence exploded after a September 28 visit by hardline Israeli politician Ariel Sharon to a Jerusalem shrine holy to Jews and Muslims.

Close to 100 people have been killed, most of them Palestinians, leaving a fragile peace process in tatters and deep uncertainty over whether the two sides will be able to pick up the pieces.

After two Israeli reserve soldiers were killed by a frenzied Palestinian mob in Ramallah on Thursday, many Israelis wondered whether Barak should even be talking to Arafat anymore.

The Israeli Maariv daily today ran photographs of more than a dozen Palestinians present during the lynching - framegrabs from video footage - and said many had gone into hiding.

Israeli Cabinet ministers have vowed to track down the killers of the two soldiers, regardless of how much time it would take.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, summit host, called for "saving what is left of the credibility of the peace process".

He pointed the finger at Israel, saying: "The aggressions to which the Palestinian people were subjected during the last two weeks persuaded me to convene this meeting."

Almost wistfully, Clinton called attention to "how far we had gone" from conflict only a few months ago before the U.S.-driven peace process collapsed and the region exploded in violence.

On a key issue, Clinton called for a fact-finding mission to probe the causes of the most serious fighting between the Israelis and Palestinians in years and to prevent a recurrence.

"We want to get negotiations started again," he said.

After Clinton and Mubarak made opening remarks, the meeting took a recess.

Each country's team kept to itself. Barak stood up and talked to his advisers. Clinton turned in his chair to speak with National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

The leaders sat about three metres apart around a horseshoe table, with Clinton and Mubarak sitting at the head.

Also at the table were King Abdullah II of Jordan and Javier Solana, EU security chief.

With a little more than three months left in his presidency, Clinton still hopes to broker a peace accord. But for this summit, the most optimistic outlook is for a truce and a date set for new negotiations between the two sides.

"We shouldn't give it all up for what has happened in the last few weeks," he said.

Barak was first to arrive for the emergency summit at this Egyptian Red Sea spa, followed by Clinton and Arafat.

After a 10-hour flight from Washington, Clinton was followed down the steps of Albright. Arafat, Barak and Clinton each met separately with Mubarak before the summit gathering.

Barak told Mubarak that he would not pull back Israeli forces or reopen Palestinian areas until Arafat re-arrests dozens of militants released from Palestinian jails in recent days and tells security forces to stop shooting and participating in street rioting, according to a senior Israeli official.

Arafat, while agreeing reluctantly to the summit, showed no indication, publicly at least, of curbing his demands.

"We are on the way to Jerusalem until a Palestinian child raises the Palestinian flag on the walls of Jerusalem," he said yesterday.

Arafat's top adviser, Nabil Aburdeneh, said the two sides were now at a crossroads. "Either we return back to the way of peace or we continue this deadlock."

Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said it would be hard to bridge the gap between the two sides.

"I think there is a wide divide of misunderstanding, hostility and frustration," he told Israel Army radio.

Clinton hopes to return home in time for a memorial service Wednesday in Norfolk, Virginia, to honour the 17 US sailors killed in an attack last Thursday on destroyer USS Cole at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula.