Middle East: Peace deal in tatters

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The Independent Online

The Middle East ceasefire deal agreed by Israeli and Palestinian leaders just four days ago had all but collapsed last night. Ten Palestinians died during the day in clashes with Israeli troops, four of them in a single firefight in the town of Nablus, in the worst day of bloodshed in two weeks.

The Middle East ceasefire deal agreed by Israeli and Palestinian leaders just four days ago had all but collapsed last night. Ten Palestinians died during the day in clashes with Israeli troops, four of them in a single firefight in the town of Nablus, in the worst day of bloodshed in two weeks.

Moments after a 4pm deadline, which Israel had declared for the ceasefire to take hold, Palestinian gunmen hiding among olive trees in Nablus opened fire on Israeli troops. The soldiers replied, killing four. Five other Palestinians, most in their teens, died in Israeli fire when demonstrators throwing stones confronted troops in towns and villages across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Israel said it was considering suspending the Oslo peace process because Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, had not stopped the violence. In practice, the process has been moribund since the violence erupted last month.

Although Ehud Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister, was not categoric about his next step, his spokesman, Nachman Shai, said: "We can now officially state that the Palestinian Authority hasn't fulfilled its part of the understandings which were achieved at Sharm el-Sheikh. Israel will take a 'time-out' from the diplomatic process and will consider its steps in the future.

"In the time-out, Israel will reassess the past few weeks since violence erupted and will make its decision on when, how, and in what way it will continue the peace process."

Yesterday's fighting reached the outskirts of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Israeli combat helicopters fired on the village of Beit Sahour, next to Bethlehem, while Israeli tanks also fired at Palestinian positions in the Arab village of Beit Jala, in both cases after coming under fire, the army said. At least 113 people have now died, nearlyall of them Palestinians andIsraeli-Arabs, since the violence erupted on 28 September.

Israeli anger will also be stirred by an incident at Tulkarm, near Nablus, in which a busload of Israeli soldiers took the wrong road and strayed into a Palestinian checkpoint. An Israeli military spokesman said Palestinian police boarded the bus, disarmed the troops, and made the senior officer lie on the floor. As the bus drove away, it was sprayed with bullets from Palestinian policemen and fighters of the Tanzim, the armed wing of Mr Arafat's Fatah party. Seven soldiers were wounded, two seriously.

Despite mutual accusations of bad faith and a failure to implement the terms of the ceasefire agreed at Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt on Tuesday, the level of violence in most parts of the Palestinian territories had been declining in the past few days. Until yesterday, both sides looked likely to agree reluctantly the deal should stand.

Asked whether the ceasefire was now over, Avi Pazner, an Israeli government spokesman, told The Independent: "Not as far as we are concerned. We started to implement it and regrettably the Palestinians weren't interested."

The Palestinians, meanwhile, blamed the Israelis, who they said were trying to extract themselves from the peace negotiations. "What we are witnessing is Barak's exit strategy," said a senior Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat.

The Nablus gunfight in particular will strain the ceasefire close to breaking point. Its timing, just after the deadline declared yesterday morning by the Israeli Foreign Minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, to decide whether the Palestinian side had met its obligations, seemed calculated to ensure that the conflict continues. The clash will harden opinion among Israelis, and has been seized on by Mr Barak's government as proof that Mr Arafat is unwilling or unable to control his fighters. With the Arab summit starting in Cairo today, Mr Arafat will be under pressure to maintain a militant stand.

The United States - which brokered the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement - said it had been a "difficult day", but a State Department spokesman added: "The bottom line is that we continue to have hope, we continue to work with the parties and we expect the parties to work to calm the situation."

Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian spokeswoman, said the only solution to the violence wasfor the Israeli army to withdraw its troops from Palestinian areas, and for an end to theIsraeli blockade of the occupied territories.

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