Murders make Israel shudder

THE killing by Palestinian gunmen on Saturday of at least two Israeli hikers in a tranquil desert beauty spot near Jericho has sent shudders through the small West Bank town. Excitement about peace has been growing there since the peace deal, and Israelis have started to visit the town again for the first time in many years.

The bodies of two Israelis, shot dead and with their throats cut, were recovered late on Saturday in Wadi Qelt, a rocky valley near the Mount of Temptation.

On Saturday night, police looking for a third person reported missing combed the hills, which are marked out with crosses as sites of Christian pilgrimage. Floodlights lit up the craggy landscape which cradles two ancient Greek Orthodox monasteries visited by thousands of foreign tourists every year.

The attack was clearly intended by Palestinian opponents of the peace deal to destabilise negotiations due to start on Wednesday by striking near Jericho, which, with Gaza, is to be granted self-rule first. The deaths will have the instant effect of deterring Israelis from visiting the occupied territories they might now have believed to be safe.

The Israeli army said yesterday that four assailants carried out the Wadi Qelt killings, which came as the Prime Minister left Israel for a visit to China. The fundamentalist Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine has claimed responsibility for shooting dead three Israelis.

Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, said: 'The war continues. But in the past it was a war against Israel and today it is a war against peace with Israel. I only hope the day is not far off that a Palestinian police will be formed and it will itself arrest the murderers and the criminals.

'Those who shot our two hikers tried to harm the effort and the Arab consensus which today has a clear majority for making peace with Israel.'

The victims were named as Dror Forer, 25, and Eran Bachar, 23. 'Suddenly I heard two shots and I saw a person fall,' said Dror Neufield, a tour guide. 'I saw another man who came running to look at the dead man, apparently to make sure he was hit, and then he hid between rocks in the wadi.'

Israeli security sources said information received over the past few weeks indicated militants were planning an attack near Jericho to demonstrate their opposition to the deal. Troops dispersed a protest by several dozen Jewish settlers angry at the attack who blocked the Jericho-Jerusalem road near Wadi Qelt by burning tyres and wood.

A 'certain number' of Palestinians opposed to the PLO- Israeli accord have been arrested in Tunis and are being 'investigated', following the discovery of a plot to assassinate Yasser Arafat, writes Safa Haeri.

News of the arrests came as the Tunisian government cut telephone lines to many prominent Palestinians, including Bassam Abu Sharif, a top Arafat adviser, in an attempt to recover money owed for unpaid phone bills.

Palestinian sources said the decision affected lines to PLO offices, residences and guest houses, including those of Mr Arafat. They say Tunis wants 'at least some part of the millions of US dollars' the PLO owes for phone bills.

(Photograph omitted)

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