Jerusalem peace talks founder amid fresh violence

Click to follow

The Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, and the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, have failed to make progress at a summit aimed at resolving issues crucial to a smooth Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and furthering the peace process.

"It was a difficult meeting and it did not meet our expectations," the Palestinian Prime Minister, Ahmad Qureia, said, after a tense two-hour meeting that was clouded by renewed violence and confrontation.

Mr Sharon renewed his calls for the Palestinians to curb the bombers and gunmen. "Israel won't endanger itself, or its citizens," an official quoted him as saying. "Israel is willing to be flexible. It is willing to take steps to move the peace process forward. But we have to see Palestinian action on the terrorist issue."

Among other familiar gestures hinted at by Mr Sharon "to demonstrate that the path of moderation will benefit the Palestinian people" was an increase in the number of workers and businessmen from the West Bank and Gaza allowed into Israel. Without committing himself to specifics, he talked about easing the flow of commercial traffic through the Erez and Rafah checkpoints from Gaza to Israel and Egypt. He also held out the carrot of a prisoner release.

The Palestinians, who arrived with a list of leaders they want freed, left disappointed. They complained that the meeting produced too many statements of position and not enough deeds.

Where Israel talked of terrorism, they talked about house demolitions and their destroyed security apparatus.

Mr Qureia complained in Ramallah last night: "The result of the summit did not meet our expectations. We want to achieve results which would create confidence. I cannot point to any issue where we achieved progress."

The summit - at Mr Sharon's official residence - was the first to be held in Jerusalem, which the two nations claim as their capital. The leaders are also understood to have discussed ways to co-ordinate Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza and part of the northern West Bank in August.

The talks were overshadowed by a resurgence of Palestinian attacks and a renewed Israeli declaration of war against Islamic Jihad. With missiles and mortars hitting Israel's Gaza settlements every day, the truce that was agreed at the last Sharon-Abbas encounter in Sharm el-Sheikh four months ago was looking more fragile than ever.

Israeli troops arrested 52 Islamic Jihad activists on the West Bank after its gunmen shot dead an Israeli sergeant-major on the Gaza-Egyptian border on Sunday and a civilian motorist in the West Bank a day later. A military spokesman indicated that Israel was no longer restricting itself to "ticking bombs", planning specific attacks.

"Islamic Jihad has taken itself absolutely out of the agreement with its attacks," Colonel Erez Winner, a senior West Bank commander, said. "So we are operating fully against them, as we did before. Anyone we know who is affiliated with this organisation is a legitimate target."

Israel was also incensed by an attempted suicide bombing on Monday by a Gaza woman, aged 21, who was on her way for medical treatment in an Israeli hospital. After suspicious guards at the Erez crossing asked her to stop, CCTV cameras caught her trying to detonate 10kgs of explosives hidden in her clothes.

Wafa Bass had been sent by the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an offshoot of Mr Abbas's al-Fatah. She told reporters from prison that she had intended to blow herself up in Beersheba hospital, where she has been treated for burns suffered when a cooking gas cylinder exploded in her kitchen.