Israel pulls back tanks

But despite the peace bid a Palestinian is killed in clashes near Jerusalem
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The Independent Online

Israel has pulled back tanks from friction points and Palestinian police have restrained rock throwers in the first tentative steps towards implementing a truce agreement reached by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres in an overnight meeting.

Israel has pulled back tanks from friction points and Palestinian police have restrained rock throwers in the first tentative steps towards implementing a truce agreement reached by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres in an overnight meeting.

The cease-fire is due to take effect at 2pm with simultaneous announcements by Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

However, in the hours leading up to the deadline, a 17-year-old Palestinian was killed in a rock-throwing clash with Israeli troops in the West Bank village of Hizme, near Jerusalem, and Palestinian gunmen fired on Israeli positions in the West Bank town of Hebron, drawing return fire.

Clashes also erupted in the Gaza Strip. However, in at least two locations, near the Jewish settlements of Kfar Darom and Netzarim in Gaza, Palestinian police pushed back rock throwers for the first time in several weeks. Near Netzarim, police bundled several dozen stone throwers in trucks and drove them away.

Previous cease-fire agreements, including one brokered by U.S. President Bill Clinton last month, did not hold, with each side accusing the other of violating commitments.

Peres and Arafat met at the Palestinian leader's Gaza City office for two hours in the first high-level meeting since the conflict erupted Sept. 28. At least 162 people have been killed in the fighting, most of them Palestinians.

"We hope we shall have two or three days without funerals," Peres told Associated Press Television News. "We shall return to normalize the situation in the territories and return to peace talks."

Palestinian peace negotiator Nabil Shaath said that according to the understandings reached, Israel will gradually lift its closure of Palestinian areas, permit Palestinian workers to return to jobs in Israel and open Gaza International Airport, as well as border crossings with Egypt and Jordan.

Arafat convened his Cabinet ministers shortly before the 2 p.m. deadline.

In an apparent call for calm, the Palestinian Information Ministry said in a statement that "the Palestinian leadership asks our Palestinian people and all our national forces to forge a united stand and express ourselves peacefully in all circumstances in our national struggle."

Barak scheduled a 2 p.m. news conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.

On Thursday morning, Israel pulled back tanks from several friction points in the Gaza Strip, including the Karni crossing, where eight Palestinians were killed in two days of fierce gun battles. One of the Karni protesters died Thursday of injuries sustained earlier.

Israeli soldiers withdrew from a Palestinian police post at Karni which they had seized earlier this week.

Israel also lifted its siege of several West Bank towns, including Nablus, Bethlehem and Hebron. Within a few hours, Palestinians were to be able to move freely in the West Bank, said Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey, the Israeli army spokesman.

Israeli and Palestinian troop commanders and lower-level officers held a series of talks in the West Bank and Gaza to work out the details of the truce.

As a result of the agreement, Israel at the last minute froze attacks on Palestinian targets that were to come as retaliation for the killing of three Israeli soldiers in gun battles with Palestinians on Wednesday.

The three soldiers were the first to die in combat since Oct. 1. Seven Palestinians were also killed, as armed clashes intensified in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the conflict appeared to be spiraling out of control.

Denouncing what he called "grave escalation initiated by the Palestinian Authority," Barak convened a special session of his Cabinet late Wednesday and "decided on a number of appropriate steps," a statement said. But the Peres-Arafat meeting led to the decision to hold the fire.

Each side has blamed the other for the violence. Israel says its forces have responded with restraint to Palestinian attacks. The Palestinians charge that Israel has used excessive force in putting down demonstrations.

A pitched battle was fought Wednesday in the village of Al Khader, near Bethlehem, where two Israeli soldiers and three Palestinians were killed Wednesday.

Four Israeli soldiers were wounded. Heavy Palestinian gunfire prevented Israeli forces from reaching the soldiers who were hit, so the Israelis sent attack helicopters to rake the village with machine guns while tanks provided covering fire for an armored vehicle to retrieve the soldiers.

Israeli attack helicopters and tanks fired at Palestinian intelligence headquarters in Jericho overnight, in retaliation for Palestinian gunfire at an Israeli army outpost where a reserve army officer was killed, the military said.

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