Heavy gun battles erupt in Gaza Strip, near Jerusalem
JERUSALEM (AP) – Israeli troops and Palestinian militiamen waged fierce gun battles in the Gaza Strip and near Jerusalem on Wednesday, undercutting faint hopes that a U.S.-backed truce plan might break the cycle of Mideast violence.
Thirty-eight Palestinians – including 15 children – were wounded in a 3-half-hour firefight at the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza. In the West Bank, an Israeli motorist was killed in a Palestinian ambush, and on the outskirts of Jerusalem, an 86-year-old Israeli man was seriously wounded by Palestinian fire.
The truce plan presented by an international commission headed by former Sen. George Mitchell called on both sides to halt violence and urged Israel to freeze construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Responding to the commission report, Israel announced Tuesday that it would not halt building in the areas the Palestinians claim for a future state, but said it would observe a limited unilateral truce. Israel’s defense minister said troops would not initiate military operations and would only shoot in life-threatening situations.
Palestinians were quick to dismiss the offer as a public relations ploy, and said calm could only be restored after settlement construction stops.
They also said Israel immediately broke its own promise. Palestinian police reported Israeli tank incursions into Palestinian territory in four areas of the Gaza Strip on Wednesday. Israeli bulldozers uprooted two olive groves and a chicken farm in the raids, witnesses said. The army would neither confirm nor deny the reports.
Each side blamed the other for starting the firefight in Rafah. The Israeli army said troops came under heavy fire and that Palestinians also fired several anti-tank grenades. Palestinian witnesses said Israeli soldiers fired at the camp without provocation.
Of 38 injured, three were in critical condition, including a 14-year-old boy hit by a bullet in the neck, doctors said. At one point, an Israeli tank shell hit the ground near a group of camp residents, and 10 people were hurt by shrapnel, Palestinians said. Israel insisted that none of its fire hit the refugee camp.
In a second battle, Palestinian gunmen fired from the West Bank town of Beit Jalla at Gilo, a Jewish neighborhood built on war-won land and annexed to Jerusalem, police said. An 86-year-old Israeli man was seriously wounded in the chest.
Gilo has been a frequent target of Palestinian gunmen. On Wednesday, Palestinian fire for the first time reached the nearby neighborhood of Malcha, site of a busy shopping mall.
In the West Bank, one Israeli motorist was killed and a second wounded in a Palestinian ambush. The army said troops arriving at the scene were also shot at and returned fire.
Since the outbreak of fighting in late September, 472 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 85 on the Israeli side.
President Bush called Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Wednesday and urged them to take steps to end the rising violence. It was only Bush’s second telephone conversation with Arafat.
Sharon advisers said Bush described Sharon’s cease-fire proposal as ”very important.” Arafat’s aides said the Palestinian leader asked Bush to put a stop to what he termed continuous Israeli aggression.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan called Sharon and said he welcomed the cease-fire proposal by the Israeli leader, according to Sharon’s office. Also, Sharon told the U.N. chief that Arafat should declare a cease-fire and make sure that it is carried out.
Speaking in Dublin, Ireland, Mitchell said before the new flareup of violence that Israel’s announcement of a limited truce was a ”heartening sign” and that he hoped there would be further progress.
Palestinian officials dismissed the announcement as an Israeli ploy and called for an international summit that would decide how to implement the Mitchell recommendations.
”It’s a public relations practice originally meant for the American and Israeli publics,” said Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres urged the Palestinians to join the truce effort. ”I read that some of our Palestinian neighbors said that this is just a trick, a public relations trick, on the side of Israel. I invite the Palestinians to pull the same trick.” Peres said.
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