Peacemakers from America, Europe and the United Nations were working desperately last night to salvage the Middle East ceasefire, after the bloodiest day of violence since the American-brokered truce was agreed on June 13.
It began shortly before midnight when a missile-firing Israeli helicopter killed three Palestinian militants on the West Bank. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine retaliated with two car bombs near Tel Aviv airport.
Later, a Palestinian gunman shot dead a civilian who was shopping in the Israeli Arab town of Baka al-Gharbiya, close to the West Bank border, and Israeli sentries seriously wounded a Palestinian, alleged to have been behaving "suspiciously" near the West Bank town of Nablus.
Terje Larsen, a UN Middle East aide, told reporters in Gaza: "The situation is very difficult. The events of the last couple of days show how fragile the ceasefire is. All indications are now it will not hold." Mr Larsen was one of the architects of the Oslo peace accord a decade ago.
The Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, denounced the helicopter attacks as "a flagrant violation of the ceasefire, an ugly crime against our citizens." His West Bank security chief, Colonel Jibril Rajoub, told Israeli army radio that he could not restrain the Palestinian gunmen and bombers so long as Israel still blockaded Arab towns and villages.
Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, claimed the acts were in self-defence. Israeli spokesmen said the seven-day moratorium on violence, brokered last Thursday by the American Secretary of State, Colin Powell, had never even begun.
"We are trying to prevent violence," the Defence Minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, contended. He insisted on total quiet as a prelude to a six-week cooling-off period before a planned resumption of peace negotiations. The chances of ever getting there look increasingly remote.
Thousands of angry mourners escorted the three murdered militants – members of Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Mr Arafat's Fatah – to their graves in Jenin yesterday.
Islamic Jihad, the most radical Palestinian group, threatened every Israeli in the country and occupied territories "will be a target for our human bombs, car bombs and bullets".
Israeli military sources said the trio were hit because it was believed they were driving to commit a terrorist attack inside Israel. Their car, which witnesses reported was targeted with eight rockets, was said to have been packed with explosives. The squad was led by Mohammed Bashrat, high on Israel's most-wanted list on suspicion of planting bombs in Netanya and other communities, and training suicide bombers for Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Six Israeli civilians were lightly injured when two booby-trapped cars exploded in flames yesterday morning in Yehud, a Tel Aviv satellite town. The blasts, triggered by mobile phones, flung nails and ball-bearings into a busy street. .
The Marxist PFLP said it was avenging the helicopter attacks and the death of two militants in a clash with Israeli soldiers in the same part of the West Bank earlier on Sunday.
Late yesterday afternoon, an Israeli shopper was shot dead in the market of Baka al-Gharbiya. Israel radio reported he was killed with his own gun.
The rapidly escalating violence spurred a concerted peace drive . The American ambassador in Tel Aviv, Martin Indyk, had urgent talks with Mr Sharon and the Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, in Jerusalem. His counterpart on the Palestinian side, Ron Schlicher, met the senior Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat.
In Gaza, Mr Larsen conferred with Mr Arafat, while the European Union's special ambassador to the peace process, Miguel Angel Moratinos, saw Mr Peres last night.
* A Belgian judge has opened an investigation into the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for alleged crimes against humanity in a 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinians.
Examining Judge Patrick Collignon found merit in two complaints filed against Sharon for his alleged role in the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon.Reuse content