Peres backs Palestinian state as tanks raid Gaza

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The Independent Online

Ignoring persistent appeals from the United States to get out, and stay out, of Palestinian-run territory, Israel dispatched its tanks yesterday on a wrecking mission into the Gaza Strip and raided an Arab village on the West Bank.

The invasions left one Palestinian dead, 14 injured, and at least two houses in ruins, demolished by the army.

Only hours later, the Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, was stressing in a speech to the UN General Assembly that there was now "broad agreement" on a Palestinian state. "Yesterday, you would hardly find ... support for a Palestinian state. Today, there is broad agreement that the creation of an independent Palestinian state – non-military and economically viable – is the best bet," he said.

These words will matter little to Palestinians whose lives were shattered yesterday by the Israeli tanks. One month has elapsed since Ariel Sharon sent his troops into parts of so-called Area A – territory under Palestinian civilian and military control – after the assassination of Israel's far-right Tourism Minister, Rechavam Zeevi.

Despite many calls for withdrawal from the US, UN and others, his army still holds positions in two Palestinian towns, Jenin and Tulkarm.

Diplomats, who are trying to coax both sides towards a ceasefire and adopting the Mitchell report, privately warn that Mr Sharon's tactics undermine Yasser Arafat's power base. Further evidence of this came on Wednesday, when several thousand Palestinians rioted after Mr Arafat's security forces arrested a member of Islamic Jihad, Mahmoud Tawalbi. In one of the strongest challenges to the Palestinian Authority for weeks, the crowd set fire to at least seven security vehicles and surrounded the offices of the Palestinian Preventive Security Service.

In the early hours yesterday, Israeli tanks, armoured personnel carriers and a bulldozer swept into Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza – penetrating almost a kilometre into Palestinian-run territory, witnesses said. The bulldozer destroyed two homes in part of the camp facing Israeli settlements. Twelve other houses were badly damaged by tank or machine-gun fire, Palestinian officials said.

A resident, Fatin Meqdad, said: "It was a night of absolute terror. We had to wake up the children and move them to a friend's house further inside the camp." She said she spent hours after the raid trying to calm her six children.

The Israeli army justified this assault – which came after a few relatively quiet days in the occupied territories – by saying that the area had been used as cover for mortar and gunfire on nearby Israeli settlements.

In an example of the army's latest tactic of mounting short, sharp and ruthless raids, Israeli troops also swept into the village of Shawawreh, near Bethlehem. Soldiers arrested eight people, claiming they were suspected militants and seized grenades, a mortar and ammunition before withdrawing.

The latest violence happened shortly before a European Union delegation, including the European Commission president, Romano Prodi, and the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, was due to arrive for talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials. Both sides are now waiting for a policy speech that the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, is due to deliver on Monday, to see if it contains any signs of a change in America's Middle East strategy. But analysts believe the most that can be expected from the US is sending an envoy to the region and more appeals to implement the Mitchell report, including a freeze on building Jewish settlements.

At the UN yesterday, Mr Peres restated the Israeli position that the Palestinians must control all of their armed groups before there can be peace in the Middle East. "If you have one political authority and several armed partners, you can have neither democracy nor security," he said. "The Palestinian authority, which is a state in the making, must establish one authority over all arms, all armies and all use of arms.

"Not for the sake of Israel, but for the sake of peace and their own destiny, so that bullets will not negate ballots."