Three Israelis dead in Gaza attack

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The Independent Online

Three Israelis were killed and two wounded in a Palestinian bombing attack Thursday on a tank in the Gaza Strip, Israeli military officials said, as European diplomats urged Palestinians to stop violence.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer delivered the same double message voiced a day earlier by his British counterpart: Palestinian terror attacks must stop, and European peace efforts must be coordinated with the United States.

In the Gaza attack, Palestinians opened fire on a civilian convoy guarded by soldiers and set off a bomb, Israeli military officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The Israelis sent a tank into the area and a huge bomb exploded under it, they said. Israel Radio and TV said the casualties were soldiers in the tank.

The bombing took place near the Netzarim intersection southwest of Gaza City, the officials said.

The new attack came as Israeli experts heaped scorn on a daylong army incursion into Gaza launched in response to rocket fire.

Israeli forces pulled out of the last of three Gaza towns Wednesday, ending an 18–hour operation launched in response to rocket fire Sunday by Palestinian militants.

Israeli commentators said the army moved too slowly, allowing the main suspects from the Hamas militant group to escape. Military sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, admitted that all but two of the 18 Palestinians arrested during the sweeps had been released.

The Palestinian leadership denounced the incursion, Israel's largest operation in Gaza during 16 months of violence, as "dangerous escalation," charging in a statement that Israel is "trying to destroy everything." Five Palestinians were killed during the raids.

The European diplomats arrived after publication of an EU peace plan that included the immediate creation of a Palestinian state, even before its borders are defined. Israel rejected the plan while Palestinians welcomed it. Israel and the United States maintain that the first step must be stopping violence.

Fischer is to meet Arafat on Saturday. On Thursday he met Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben–Eliezer in Tel Aviv and said he would tell Arafat: "The terror must be stopped."

"The situation is very serious," Fischer said. "We are really concerned ... about the recent developments, about increased terror and suffering of innocent people."

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw delivered the same message to Arafat on Wednesday and warned against too many peace plans. Fischer agreed.

"It is important that we don't allow divisions among Europeans, the United States, the moderate Arab countries, that we maintain a shared international position," he said.

At a lecture Thursday in at Tel Aviv University, Fischer said it was a "tragedy" that all the elements of a peace solution are on the table and have been "discussed ten times, a hundred times, maybe a thousand times." He said both sides have legitimate rights.

Meanwhile, a leading Palestinian negotiator, Ahmed Qureia, said he would hold no more meetings with Ariel Sharon until the Israeli prime minister stops talking about the need to replace Yasser Arafat with a new Palestinian leadership.

Qureia spoke after meeting Straw, who was winding up his two–day visit just as Fischer was beginning his. The two European diplomats met briefly at Israel's airport.

Sharon met with Qureia and other Palestinian negotiators before flying to Washington last week to see U.S. President George Bush. Sharon had said he planned to continue the meetings, and in Washington he said it was necessary to encourage an alternative leadership to replace Arafat.

Qureia said he told Straw, "We are not ready to continue the meetings with Prime Minister Sharon if he will continue the same way he is dealing with President Arafat."

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