Mideast combatants defy calls for cease-fire

By GREG MYRE

Associated Press

JERUSALEM – Palestinian gunmen battled Israeli soldiers today at isolated army posts in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that have degenerated into virtual free-fire zones, as both sides defied a cease-fire call on the eve of a U.S. attempt to salvage peacemaking.

Today’s death toll of four was the lowest since the fighting began last week. In addition, 206 people were injured, according to the Palestinians. Overall, 55 people have died and at least 1,300 have been wounded, the vast majority Palestinian.

“The results have been very painful,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said, adding that he had called on Israel’s security forces “to make a supreme effort to prevent further casualties.”

Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat head to Paris on Wednesday in hopes that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright can help end the fighting and revive peace talks.

Barak also was battling for political survival at home, trying to appease Arab legislators who are threatening to topple his government over the harsh crackdown on rioters in Israel’s Arab towns. The internal rebellion, the worst since Israel’s founding 52 years ago, has blocked highways and closed schools, paralyzing large parts of northern Israel.

With the Israelis blasting away with heavy weapons, such as rockets launched from helicopters, and with the Palestinians routinely firing automatic rifles, the intensity of the fighting sometimes resembles a war and has surpassed levels seen during the 1987-93 Palestinian uprising and three days of firefights in 1996.

“I have been dealing with such riots since 1987 and … there have never anything on this level – not when it comes to clashes and certainly not when it comes to the use of weapons,” said Yisrael Yitzhak, commander of Israel’s paramilitary border police in the West Bank.

Gunmen wore civilian clothes and did not appear to be members of the Palestinian security forces.

The heaviest clashes today were again in the chaotic West Bank and Gaza Strip, where a hastily arranged cease-fire quickly unraveled at a pair of chronic trouble spots.

Israeli troops, backed by a helicopter gunship, traded gunfire with Palestinians at an army outpost near the remote Jewish settlement of Netzarim in the Gaza Strip, part of an on-and-off battle that’s been running for days.

Palestinian rock throwers dropped face-down in the streets, seeking cover amid sustained blasts of automatic rifle fire. Shortly afterward, wailing ambulances arrived to take away the casualties.

One man’s head was mutilated by an Israeli rocket, and his fellow Palestinians picked up parts of his brain and waved their bloodstained hands in the air.

In the West Bank town of Nablus, besieged Israeli forces also called in helicopter fire to drive back Palestinians shooting on the tiny Israeli enclave of Joseph’s Tomb.

After an emotional funeral for a 15-year-old Palestinian boy, Palestinians headed directly to the Israeli outpost. Several gunmen dashed to the edge of the compound and raised their rifles to shoot over the stone wall surrounding the tomb.

Youths relied on black smoke from burning tires to provide cover as they darted toward the wall and hurled firebombs toward the tomb, believed by some to hold the remains of the biblical patriarch.

Elsewhere, stone-throwing youths confronted Israeli soldiers in cities and towns throughout the Palestinian areas. The main streets in Bethlehem and Hebron were carpeted with thousands of rocks. The Israelis responded with rubber-coated steel bullets and stun grenades in most instances.

Palestinian television broadcast an appeal in Hebrew to Israeli soldiers not to open fire, and a senior Palestinian official said an international inquiry into Israel’s actions would be a condition of reviving the peace talks.

“We think that the Israeli crimes committed against our people attacked the heart of the peace process,” said Nabil Abourdeneh, a top aide to Arafat. But Barak’s office said he “totally rejected the call for an international investigation.”

Meanwhile, the Israeli army said a 12-year-old boy killed at Netzarim on Saturday was apparently hit by Israeli gunfire. The death, caught on camera, shocked viewers around the world. Israel’s Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Moshe Yaalon expressed “deep sorrow” and said a sniper had apparently mistaken the child for a gunman.

The violence began Thursday after Ariel Sharon, leader of the hard-line opposition Likud party, visited a Jerusalem site holy to Muslims and Jews. Sharon insisted he bore no responsibility, laying the blame on Arafat.

Israeli and Palestinian commanders reached an understanding before dawn today that the Palestinians would try to contain violence and Israeli troops would pull back from points of friction.

But on the street, angry Palestinian protesters said they hadn’t heard, or didn’t care, about the agreement.

“The cease-fire does not mean anything to us,” said Anwar Takakh, joining stone-throwers in Bethlehem. “It is between Arafat and Barak.”

Barak turned his attention to the violence among Israeli Arabs, who account for 1 million of Israel’s 6 million people. The prime minister met with Arab mayors and set up a committee to address Arab needs.

Without the backing of 10 Arab lawmakers in parliament, Barak’s government could collapse, leading to new elections.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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