New assaults by Israel threaten US coalition bid

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The Independent Online

There is deepening concern among Western powers that Israel is complicating the task of building an international coalition against terrorism by exploiting the American crisis to step up its military assaults on the Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Fears are growing that the strategy pursued by Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, is impeding the US and Nato coalition with Islamic countries, where popular opinion has long been inflamed by Israel's conduct during the intifada. Israeli combat helicopters fired at least seven missiles in the Gaza Strip yesterday, targeting a refugee camp. Three Palestinians died and more than 30 were hurt.

A day earlier, Mr Sharon called off truce talks between his Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian President. The move went against the wishes of the US and European nations pressing both sides to get back to negotiations. The West had hoped to lower the temperature as the delicate work begins on coalition-building and planning a military strike against Islamic targets.

Israel says Palestinian attacks, including mortars from Gaza, grenades and shootings, have continued unabated since the assaults on New York and Washington. An Israeli foreign ministry official said: "The last 48 or 72 hours have shown no diminishing in the level of violence and therefore there is no reason why there should be any change in the right of Israel to take defensive measures.''

Since Tuesday, 18 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli army, most during two tank raids into the Palestinian-controlled town of Jenin on the West Bank. There have also been raids on Jericho and several West Bank villages.

Arab exasperation against Western powers has been increased by Israel's attempts to use the US tragedy to score political points in its conflict with the Palestinians. Largely about Israel's occupation of Arab land, this conflict has been joined by extremist Islamic-nationalists who use suicide bombers to kill civilians in Israel. Mr Sharon and his spokesman have compared Mr Arafat with Osama bin Laden, although none of the atrocities committed by Israel or Palestine in the conflict can be compared in scale to those in New York and Washington.

The US attacks have isolated the Palestinians and threatened to sweep away any remaining vestige of sympathy in the West for their cause so long as Mr Arafat does not crack down hard on extremists. Mr Arafat has scrambled to condemn the US attacks, which has led the Americans and others to conclude that the time is ripe to push through a cease-fire and return to negotiations.

"The Palestinians are in deep trouble and some of their people are trying to sort it out,'' said one source. "So it's not helpful for anyone to be raising the temperature. This is not the lesson to draw from what happened in the US, and it is not right to exploit it.''

This week the British Foreign Office denounced the Jenin raid, pointing out that it only increases tension worldwide. The Israelis were deeply annoyed. They were also angered when the French ambassador to Israel, Jacques Huntzinger, said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be confused with the assaults on the US. After a storm of criticism, he later said that there had been a misunderstanding.

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