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Israel/Palestinian Peace Talks on Knife-Edge

by Selwyn Manning - breaking story

Despite ceasefire calls from both the PLO and Israel over-night, tentions remain on a knife-edge in Israel, the West Bank and around Gaza.

The ceasefire was only hours old, when the Israeli Defence Force tank-shelled and flattened a series of one-storey structures, housing administrative offices, used for a sea port construction project in Gaza, witnesses have said.

arafat.jpg (18899 bytes)Yasser Arafat said the move was part of an Israeli effort to scuttle plans for truce talks. Arafat told reporters: “This escalation is aimed at sabotaging the meeting with Peres."

Israel's Ministery of Defence and Israel Defence Force websites, Wednesday [New Zealand time],  make no mention of a ceasefire. Nor does the official Israel Government site.

Sharon earlier agreed to instruct his forces to end hostilities after pressure from the United States to ease tensions in the Israel/Palestinian territories in a bid to bring order during the build up to the "War against terrorism".

But the shelled structures appear strategically designed to upset the tenuous peace-pact. The destroyed project south of Gaza City is funded by the French and Dutch governments, international lending institutions and the Palestinian Authority, and is considered a key symbol of Palestinian aspirations for statehood. The Israeli Army is reportedly "looking into the reports".

In a Palestinian statement issued this morning: Arafat said he told reporters and foreign diplomats that he would do his "utmost" to implement a cease-fire with Israel, and that he "will place all his capabilities at its service and again offered to join an anti-terrorism alliance after last week's attacks in New York and Washington".

He reaffirmed his commitment to stand by the United States following last week attacks "I announce today I have informed the United States of placing all of our capabilities at their service and of our readiness to be part of the international alliance to end terrorism against unarmed civilians in order to reach a world where security, peace and justice prevail," Arafat said.

Arafat noted the latest Israeli aggression: "Five Israeli tanks and a bulldozer drove into an area south of Gaza City where a seaport is under construction, tearing down the fence and destroying eight rooms.

''Despite of that this morning, I again instructed all heads of the security forces to work intensively on a cease-fire... and to abstain even in self-defense in response to Israeli attacks,'' Arafat said.

Hostilities also flared in the West Bank last night with two other Palestinians killed. The Israel Defence Force wire lists one Israeli soldier as having been killed and another wounded. It lists also IDF soldiers coming under fire and a grenade attack on a military post. And ten Palestinians were wounded in Hebron over night.

Meanwhile, political heads of both sides are calling for calm.

Arafat told a press conference yesterday that he had ordered Palestinian forces to abide by a ceasefire he declared in June but which failed to hold.

He issued an unprecedented order to his Palestinian policemen not to shoot back if fired upon by Israelis. "We Palestinians and Israelis have to work together to break the vicious cycle of violence," Arafat told reporters.

Saeb Erakat, Chief Palestinian negotiator in the peace deals said: "We have a golden opportunity."

Erakat told reporters: "I think this, [the ceasefire agreement] is a very significant development, but you have to keep in mind the trust level between the two sides is below zero."

The PLO has called for the United States to send an emissary to the region, and also called for observers and monitors to be sent. The PLO wants an immediate meeting between Arafat and Peres.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon [pictured speaking to press] said now that Arafat had declared asharon-whitehouse.jpg (97652
bytes) cease-fire, Israel would immediately cease all its actions against the Palestinian Authority. After 48 hours of complete quiet, he said Peres and Arafat could meet to discuss ways of stabilizing the cease-fire.

The right-wing Sharon earlier blocked his deputy and foreign minister, Peres, from meeting Arafat this week, concerned that such talks now would let Arafat polish his international image as a peacemaker.

Forty-seven years ago, Ariel Sharon led a raid on a West Bank village that killed about 70 men, women and children, most of them civilians. The villagers and the PLO have not forgotten.

The distrust flows from both sides. Despite that, Peres welcomed Arafat's announcement as "an important statement with a positive element both with a general commitment to peace and explicit instruction to stop fire". He said to CNN: "The world is facing an unbelievable danger and we have to put aside secondary skirmishes."

He added that there would "undoubtedly" now be a meeting between the two sides. Possibly within days if the truces held.

But senior Israeli officials have reportedly taken a more sceptical view, insisting that Arafat's sincerity will be tested on the ground, and in deeds.

If the violence continues and the peace-talks are called off again, it is less likely Arab states will co-operate with US and Nato moves to hunt out terrorists in the region. And if Israel continues to scuttle the opportunity of peace-talks, the United States Bush administration may prove a stone in Sharon's shoe.

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