Middle East Tense, With Fears of Terrorism, Hints of Talks

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October 11, 2000

Middle East Tense, With Fears of Terrorism, Hints of Talks By DEBORAH SONTAG

ERUSALEM, Oct. 11 - Despite an intensive international effort to defuse the tensions here, the violence continued on a low broil as Prime Minister Ehud Barak warned Israelis that renewed terrorism could follow the rioting and gun battles of the last 13 days.

The funeral procession of a slain American-born settler, which was stoned by Palestinians, led to hours of gun battles between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers in the particularly volatile Nablus area. In clashes elsewhere, three Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli troops, bringing the number of dead to at least 93.

While foreign diplomats already here sought Israeli-Palestinian agreement on what kind of fact-finding body would examine the deadly conflict - a key to arranging a summit meeting - President Clinton said that he or Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright might visit the Middle East.

Additionally, Israeli and Palestinian officials said there was talk of an American-brokered meeting in Oslo as early as Sunday, while the Italian prime minister offered Rome and the Egyptians ruled out their country as a potential host.

Following the release of about 20 members of Islamic fundamentalist groups from Palestinian prisons, Mr. Barak said that he instructed security and intelligence officials to prepare for the possibility of terrorist attacks.

``I call on the public to be alert,'' he said.

A senior Israeli military intelligence officer said that Islamic groups think that they have been given ``a blinking yellow light '' to renew terrorism. ``Of course, the consequences are explosive,'' another officer said.

But Palestinian officials said that Mr. Barak was overreacting to a prison release that had been ordered by Palestinian judges because the men were being held without charges. They also charged that the Israeli prime minister was trying to shift the international perception of Israel from ``military aggressor to terror victim,'' as Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said.

Mr. Clinton said today that, ``Things are most explosive in the Middle East when both sides feel victimized.'' He said that both sides were now, however, taking responsibility for their actions.

Still, the public relations machines that both have cranked up - with the Israelis setting up a veritable war room for the foreign press - remain engaged in fairly intense blame games.

Each accuses the other of instigating the violence, of perpetuating the violence and of preventing a return to the negotiating table. The Palestinians excoriate the Israeli troops for killing a disproportionate number of children, while the Israelis claim that the Palestinians are responsible for putting their children in harm's way.

Foreign diplomats in the region, led by Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, have been trying to mediate between the Palestinian demand for an international inquiry into the violence and an Israeli proposal for a fact-finding team of Israelis, Palestinians and Americans with a Norwegian observer.

``What do you have to hide?'' Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator asked an Israeli official.

A senior Israeli security official said, ``What the Palestinians are looking for is not a fact-finding mission, it's an international kangaroo court.''

Despite today's casualties, the violence has tapered off this week. Israeli officials insist that Mr. Arafat gave orders to street lieutenants to cool the riots.

But the senior lieutenant, Marwan Barghouti, said in an interview that the uprising was still on, with Mr. Arafat's blessing. Mr. Barghouti said that the Palestinian leader only requested that the situation be kept from escalating to protect civilians. Other Palestinians said that Mr. Arafat frowns on the gunfire and prefers a cleaner confrontation - Palestinian stones, as ``symbolic weapons,'' aimed at the Israeli military machine.

On Sunday, Mr. Barak gave Mr. Arafat a 48-hour deadline to quell the violence before he resorted to using fuller force or economic sanctions on the Palestinians. On Monday, at the urging of the Americans and others, he extended the deadline indefinitely to avoid escalating the conflict.

``Barak had climbed up into a tree, and they helped him down,'' a diplomat said.

Mr. Barak himself has hinted in interviews that his threat was aimed as much at the world as at Mr. Arafat, saying that it worked to force international intervention.

Mr. Barak, however, has come under fire from right-wing opponents for backing away from his ultimatum. They said that he damaged Israel's credibility as a military power and broke a national tradition of standing behind such threats.

``Not following through on threats is always risky, but this latest and most dispiriting capitulation could not have come at a worse moment,'' said an editorial in the Jerusalem Post. ``In three short days, Barak has put at risk a defense strategy that took decades to build.''

Ariel Sharon, the right-wing opposition leader, has announced that he will not join forces with Mr. Barak, who is clearly prepared to return to the peace table if the violence ebbs.

``I have no intention of joining the Barak government,'' Mr. Sharon said. ``We will be willing to support the government's actions when they contribute to the security of Israel.''

But Mr. Barak, who gave full ministerial posts to several acting ministers today, noticeably failed to make permanent Shlomo Ben Ami's temporary job as acting Foreign Minister. It is believed that he is keeping that portfolio free to offer it to Mr. Sharon, if need be.

In the West Bank, many young settlers think that their lives there are God-given mission and risky enough to warrant making advance plans for their own funerals. That was the case with Hillel Lieberman, a 36-year-old yeshiva student who asked to be buried in the Yitzhar settlement near the graves of two other yeshiva students killed in a terrorist attack two years ago.

A convoy of buses and private cars proceeded this afternoon to his funeral, which many mourners believed to be the double tragedy of someone who died trying to protect a Jewish religious site. Mr. Lieberman was abducted and murdered after setting out on Saturday morning to walk the three miles from his settlement to Nablus, when he heard that Palestinians were burning and sacking the site.

Stones pelted the funeral convoy. The settlers quickly left their vehicles and started throwing stones back and then shooting in the air, according to witnesses. Israeli radio said that Israeli soldiers quickly intervened, taking the shooting into their own hands. But a mourner complained that the soldiers first ``fled like girls.''

The scene developed into a raging gun battle, with Israeli tanks advancing and helicopters hovering in a show of force. Sporadic gunfire continued through the evening.

In a sign of how the tensions are rippling into ordinary life, two Israeli arts festivals that usually take place during the fall holiday of Sukkot have been canceled. The film festival in Haifa, a mixed Jewish-Arab city that is considered leftist, will still go on, but Arab filmmakers scheduled to attend are boycotting.

The near collapse of routine in the West Bank and Gaza has cost about $200 million, officials estimated. Until today, the Palestinians closed the Karni crossing that is the principal commercial border in Gaza. The Israelis today extended the Gazan borders' closure to day laborers who usually travel to Israel.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 11, 2000

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