Israel 'close to all-out war' warns Annan

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The Independent Online

Fierce clashes erupted again yesterday between Israelis and Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza, shattering an hours-old ceasefire and casting darkening shadows over a flurry of forthcoming summitry to try to end the six days of violence.

Fierce clashes erupted again yesterday between Israelis and Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza, shattering an hours-old ceasefire and casting darkening shadows over a flurry of forthcoming summitry to try to end the six days of violence.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, and the Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat, are to hold meetings separately in Paris today with the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, and France's President, Jacques Chirac - and, it is hoped, each other - before leaving for Egypt for talks hosted by President Hosni Mubarak.

Expressing his deep concern about events, the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, said: "Instead of moving forward with a peace settlement we now seem to have almost an all-out war in a highly populated area."

The goal is no longer to breathe new life into the search for an overall settlement; simply to find a formula to end the fighting that has cost at least 55 lives, mostly Palestinian, and provoked the angriest anti-Israeli demonstrations in years across the Arab world.

As Israeli troops, backed by tanks and helicopter gunships, fought hundreds of Palestinians near an Israeli settlement at Netzarim in the Gaza strip and fired on stone-throwing protesters in the occupied West Bank, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Egypt, Jordan and other Arab capitals, burning Israeli flags, stoning the Israeli embassy in Amman and calling for a holy war to liberate Palestinian lands.

Most ominously, perhaps, the spectre of terrorism was again stalking the region. In Cairo, President Mubarak warned that the dispute over the status of Jerusalem - cause of the latest turmoil and the biggest obstacle to a final settlement - "could bring back terrorism world-wide". In Lebanon, Munir Makdah, leader of a radical Palestinian faction, vowed to strike Israeli targets "wherever our hands can reach".

International efforts to end the violence paled beside the sheer rage and hostility on the ground. Appeals for calm from Washington, London and elsewhere fell on largely deaf ears.

At the UN yesterday, the US and Arab countries failed to agree on a joint Security Council response to the crisis. A draft statement would not only have criticised Israel for its use of excessive deadly force against lightly armed protesters, and condemned it for violating the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, requiring an occupying power to protect civilians in a war.

The Americans, Israel's allies of last resort, balked at that last provision, so the Palestinians and their supporters insisted no statement at all was preferable to a watered-down version, which ignored the Geneva conventions.

Across the Arab world and much of Europe, the finger of blame was pointed squarely at Israel, for the visit of the Likud party leader, Ariel Sharon, to a holy Muslim shrine in Jerusalem last week, the event that detonated the fighting, and for the severity of its crackdown against the Palestinians.

In Paris, the French Foreign Minister, Hubert Vedrine, accused Mr Sharon, the Israeli politician Palestinians detest above any other, as a "a deliberate provocation" for purely domestic political ends, which does not augur well for Mr Chirac's peace efforts today. Mrs Albright tried to put a brave face on developments, saying Mr Barak and President Arafat were "very pleased and eager" to travel to Paris. But what hopes Washington nurtures of a deal to end the violence depend largely on a genuine ceasefire.

Her task is made no easier by the depth of Palestinian bitterness, the approaching end of the Clinton presidency and the low view in Arab capitals of her talents as Secretary of State.

Three months ago, President Clinton hosted a summit where a partial peace agreement seemed within reach. Now the 50-year conflict is threatening to explode into open war.

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