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Israel-Palestinian Talks Frustrated By Violence

Weekend Round-up - By Selwyn Manning and agencies - First published on Spectator.co.nz

Israeli and Palestinian field commanders in the West Bank and Gaza Strip held surprise talks last night [Sunday March 17 2002], encouraged by a cease-fire mission by US envoy Anthony Zinni.

The talks are a first step toward an Israeli pullout from reoccupied Palestinian territory, a withdrawal which the Palestinian Authority says must take place before a US-brokered truce can be reached.

Zinni earlier yesterday met Palestinian President Yasser Arafat hours after a Palestinian shooting in Israel, a suicide bombing in Jerusalem and fighting in the West Bank town of Bethlehem had flared rage throughout the region.

At least 1,069 Palestinians and 344 Israelis have died since a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation began in September 2000 after peace talks froze.

In a statement Zinni said: "These attacks will not deter my efforts to continue to work with both sides to bring the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation to an end.

"At the same time, it is critical that the Palestinian Authority take responsibility and act against terror and punish those responsible."

In Jerusalem a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in front of a bus. In Tel Aviv and a Palestinian gunman killed a teen-age girl in a shooting spree. In Bethlehem Israeli tanks stormed the centre of Bethlehem, moving to within 200 yards of the Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where tradition holds that Jesus was born. A Palestinian militiaman was killed. The tanks later pulled back to positions near the edge of town.

Zinni Shuttled between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. On Sunday morning [NZ Time] Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon revealed plans to meet top Palestinian leaders, intending on declaring a ceasefire.

The announcement raised hopes of a breakthrough - yet Palestinian leaders and the US said the Israeli statement was premature. Israel later, revisited its statement.

The Palestinians insist Israel first withdraw its troops from all Palestinian areas before they will agree to a cease-fire. Israeli troops remain active Bethlehem and adjacent Beit Jalla, just south of Jerusalem.

Israel began withdrawing troops from occupied Palestinian territories including Ramallah and two other West Bank cities, but has kept troops just outside four other cities.

A senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told CNN a two-pronged approach was needed to resolve the crisis.

"We cannot work security aspects in isolation from the political track or the political vision, and what we are trying really to institute here is that the political track and the security track will work in parallel," Erekat said.

Gun battles in the West Bank city of Hebron and near the Netzarim Jewish settlement in central Gaza on Saturday night underscored the difficulties Zinni faces after a week of some of the fiercest Arab-Israeli fighting in decades.

Zinni’s two previous missions to implement a U.S.-brokered cease-fire and an internationally backed truce-to-talks plan were derailed by violence.

European Union leaders urged Israel at the end of a two-day summit in Barcelona on Sunday morning [New Zealand time] to pull all its forces out of the Palestinian territories immediately and to respect international law, including Palestinians' human rights. The leaders also called on the Palestinians to crack down on terrorism and reaffirmed their support for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, secure within internationally recognized borders.

Meanwhile, for a second straight day, thousands of Arabs took to the streets across the Middle East on Saturday to burn Israeli and American flags and express anger over the rising Palestinian death toll. Some 5,000 protesters demonstrated in Amman, Jordan, some waving pictures of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and calling on him to attack Israel - as he did with missiles during the 1991 Gulf War. They also appealed to Osama bin Laden, the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. "Saddam, please strike Tel Aviv!" and "Bin Laden, you are dear to us, bomb Tel Aviv!" the protesters chanted before a squad of 200 police officers who kept them from a UN building. In Cairo, 4,000 Egyptian students chanted anti-Israeli slogans and burned Israeli and American flags.

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