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Israel warns Palestinians, prepares for a long war
Agencies ISRAEL ISSUED a new warning on Thursday to Palestinian gunmen south of occupied Jerusalem to stop shooting or face reprisals, and said it was preparing for a “protracted battle” after more than 10 months of violence. US President George W. Bush spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by telephone and they agreed on the need to avoid escalating the violence, a White House spokesman said.
Sharon's office said he told Bush that Israel would continue to carry out “preventive operations” against Palestinians suspected of planning “terrorist” attacks, referring to Israel's internationally condemned policy of assassinating Palestinian activists.
A Palestinian was killed Wednesday when his car overturned, apparently after a rock was thrown at it as he drove through the West Bank.
Palestinians blamed Jewish settlers for his death, but Israeli police said the circumstances were not clear.
Palestinian witnesses said Jewish settlers driving in the opposite direction threw a stone through the car's windshield as it passed them on a West Bank road.
The driver, Kamal Musallam, 51, lost control of the car, it rolled over and he was killed, the witnesses said. At least three other passengers were hurt.
An Israeli police spokesman said a rock was found in the car but the exact circumstances of Musallam's death were still unclear.
“We are not ruling anything out,” the spokesman said. “It could be Jews that threw the rock. It could be Palestinians that threw the rock.” He said there was often Palestinian stone-throwing on the road.
Jewish settlers have killed at least six Palestinians, including a three-month-old baby, in shootings in the West Bank since the start of a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation ten months ago. Stone-throwing incidents are also common.
The United States and Russia had earlier agreed to coordinate efforts to end the violence and pave the way for a resumption of peace talks that stalled shortly before a Palestinian revolt against Israeli occupation erupted last September.
But Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Israeli forces near Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem, would not sit quietly by if Palestinian gunmen in the village of Beit Jala fired again at the nearby Jewish settlement of Gilo.
“Israeli military forces are not there to flex muscles,” Ben-Eliezer said in a radio interview. “We are giving a chance to the efforts made by the other side to prevent the shooting. But if it happens we will not be able to accept it.”
“If we have to enter Beit Jala, we will stay there, but not indefinitely,” the Labour minister said on Israeli public radio.
“Our aim is not to attack the population of Beit Jala or Bethlehem, but there are terrorist elements there using the towns, and we will not allow Gilo to be fired upon,” he said, referring to the nearby Jewish settlement.
Israeli media said Tuesday that Ariel Sharon had told close aides that “we will move into Beit Jala as soon as the first bullet hits Gilo.”
More than 567 Palestinians and about 148 Israelis have died in the violence since September.
Ben-Eliezer confirmed Israel had on Tuesday cancelled a raid on Beit Jala, a Palestinian-ruled village next to Bethlehem, to give President Yasser Arafat a chance to stop the shooting.
He said the military was preparing for a long conflict but still held out hope that peace talks would restart. Israel has said violence must end before negotiations resume.
“The IDF (army) is preparing for, and it is its job to prepare for, a protracted battle,” Ben-Eliezer said. “It's very possible that Yasser Arafat...will take charge and will come to the peace table.”
An Israeli military report quoted by an Israeli newspaper Thursday predicted that the conflict would continue for another five years. The report also warned that it could escalate into a regional war, according to the Haaretz daily.
Asked about the forecast, Ben-Eliezer said it was “nonsense,” but then acknowledged that the conflict with the Palestinians “is a problem that doesn't seem to have a solution in the foreseeable future.”
Tension has risen in the past week after two Palestinian suicide bombings killed 15 people in addition to the bombers.
Israel responded by seizing Palestinian offices in Jerusalem and raiding Palestinian-ruled Jenin in the West Bank.
Sharon's office said the prime minister told Bush Israel had taken over the Orient House, the Palestine Liberation Organisation's main Jerusalem headquarters, to enforce the law.
“Israel found weapons and explosives in the Orient House and in (buildings in the West Bank town of) Abu Dis,” the statement quoted Sharon as saying.
“The activity from these places included kidnappings, torture, as well as murder, blackmail, threats and detainments of the Palestinian Authority against the population of East Jerusalem,” the statement said.
Support for peace plans
Sean McCormack, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said on Thursday that Bush had expressed his condolences for the suicide bombings.
“Both leaders agreed on the need to avoid escalating the situation in the region,” McCormack said. “Both leaders reaffirmed their support for implementing the Mitchell committee report and the Tenet work plan.”
He was referring to a truce-to-peacemaking plan drawn up by a panel led by former US Senator George Mitchell, and a ceasefire plan crafted by CIA Director George Tenet.
The United States said Israel's raid on Jenin, the area where the two suicide bombers lived, was “provocative”. But the State Department said it would oppose any intervention by the the U.N. Security Council, as requested by the Palestinians.
Members of the UN Security Council went into a closed session to consider requests from Islamic nations for an urgent meeting on the escalating violence in the Middle East.
In the Gaza Strip, the Israeli army reported Palestinians fired two mortar bombs at Jewish settlements in southern Gaza early on Thursday.
The army said a soldier was moderately wounded in a gun battle near the Gaza-Egypt border and that Palestinians opened fire at Israeli positions in the West Bank city of Hebron.
In the West Bank, five Palestinian men were wounded Thursday when an Israeli tank attacked a Palestinian police roadblock south of Dura, near Hebron, Palestinian security forces said.
The incident, said to have occurred after Israelis and Palestinians traded automatic weapons fire, was categorically denied by an Israeli army spokesman, who said the claim was “totally lacking in foundation.”
The Israeli spokesman said there were a number of other armed incidents in the Palestinian territories in recent hours, but that none of them had resulted in casualties.
Separately, the army said it had arrested Mahmud Abu Khalta, an activist of Tanzim, the armed wing of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fateh movement, in an operation early Thursday north of Nablus.
Palestinians slap tit-for-tat embargo on Israeli farm goods
Meanwhile, Palestinian Agriculture Minister Hikmat Zaid on Thursday announced an embargo on a list of agricultural products from Israel, in response to a 10-month blockade on Palestinian goods entering Israel.
“As of today, certain Israeli agricultural products will not enter Palestinian territory,” the minister told reporters. “This measure aims to denounce the destruction of Palestinian agriculture by Israel through the Israeli blockade of Palestinian territories,” he added.
“It will be lifted if the (Israeli) blockade is lifted, allowing the free circulation of agricultural products and Palestinian veterinaries through the Palestinian territories.”
He said restrictions on the movements of vets was leading to a rise in livestock diseases.
The Israel products to be banned included bananas, mangoes, melons, pears, apples, chickens and eggs, beef and dairy products, with the exception of milk.
Also Thursday, Israeli public radio reported that an Israeli youth held by the police has admitted to knifing five young Palestinians in central Jerusalem.
The 16-year-old Israeli was arrested for another offence but admitted to five knife attacks in and around the centre of the city, saying the stabbings were motivated by nationalist sentiment.
Police have asked for his custody to be prolonged, said the radio, without giving the youth's identity.
Four Fateh members die in internal conflict NABLUS (AFP) — Four members of Fateh, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's party, were killed on Thursday in Nablus during an internal conflict, Palestinian sources said.
The four belonged to two separate factions of Fateh and died in a gunfight outside the Rafidieh hospital, the sources said.
One of the men killed was Taiel Farah, one of the most senior leaders of the Muslim religious and community organisation, Waqf, the sources said.
Farah was Waqf general bureau chief, the third most senior position in the organisation. He was previously the head of preventitive security for the Palestinian National Authority for the West Bank town of Jenin. The other three killed were Aref Musallam, Ayman Kasim and Mashour Musallam, the sources said.
Three other Palestinians were wounded in the clash.
The gunfight erupted from an old quarrel between the two factions, sources said. The nature of the quarrel was not immediately known.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), August 18, 2001