Israelis kill gunmen crossing from Jordan

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The Independent Online

Israeli special forces shot dead four Arab gunmen who infiltrated the southern end of the occupied Golan Heights from Jordan yesterday. Earlier in the day, the Jordanian army informed Israel that it had killed two other armed men attempting to cross into Israeli-held territory.

An Israeli military spokes-man said the four were carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles and ammunition. The Israelis assume they were planning to attack one of the settlements on the plateau above the Sea of Galilee. A unit of commandos hunted them down in rough terrain where the borders of Syria, Jordan and Israel converge.

Intelligence officers were trying to establish last night whether the four had been sent by a Palestinian group or by Lebanon's Hizbollah militia, which Israel blames for killing six of its citizens in an ambush in northern Galilee on 12 March.

Israel is increasingly concerned at what it sees as a budding alliance between the Palestinian Authority and Iran, with Hizbollah acting as Tehran's local agent.

A senior Israeli official told The Independent yesterday: "Hizbollah is the conduit for arms and money destined for the Palestinians. Iran is using the Palestinians and other terrorist groups as a substitute 'long arm' against Israel until it acquires weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them."

The Golan clash took place as President George Bush's special envoy, Anthony Zinni, wasattempting yet again to broker an Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire. The retired general met security chiefs from the two sides last night but the meeting ended without agreement, raising further doubts over the planned departure today of the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, for the Arab summit due to open in Beirut on Wednesday.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, is convening his inner security cabinet this morning to decide whether to allow Mr Arafat to leave Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority's administrative HQ in the West Bank, where he has been confined since December.

Mr Sharon told his cabinet yesterday that Mr Arafat would not leave "as long as he does not act against terror". President Bush reiterated on Saturday that the Palestinian leader was not doing enough to reduce the violence. His Vice-President, Dick Cheney, has made "100 per cent effort" a condition for returning to the Middle East to meet Mr Arafat. But the Americans are pressing Israel to let the Palestinian leader go to Beirut and to let him return after the summit.

Mr Arafat's officials were defiant yesterday. "He's going," said a spokesman, Samir Rantisi. "He will be leaving on Monday. We will not be subjected to any blackmail from Sharon." Asked what would happen if the Israelis tried to stop him, he replied: "It will be the responsibility of the United States and the Arab states."

Israel controls all land exits from the West Bank. It destroyed Mr Arafat's helicopters at the end of last year. If the Palestinian leader wanted to leave by air, it would have to be in a Jordanian helicopter flown in from Amman.

The Palestinians say Mr Arafat has already taken steps to scale down the violence. According to Mr Rantisi, last week he ordered leaders of all the fighting groups to stop attacking civilians inside Israel. The ban did not apply to settlers and soldiers in the occupied territories. "Events in the West Bank," Mr Rantisi explained, "are subject to reaching a ceasefire with the Israelis."

As far as Mr Sharon is concerned, a ceasefire would have to include attacks on all Israelis, anywhere. Israel would not acquiesce in the kind of drive-by shooting that killed a 23-year-old teacher on a settler bus yesterday. Palestinian sources reported that a policeman was shot dead as Israeli troops pursued the assailants.