Israel, Palestinians hold security talks despite razing of refugee neighborhood
JERUSALEM (AP) – Israeli and Palestinian security chiefs met Wednesday in a U.S.-sponsored effort to reduce violence, Palestinian officials said, after Israeli tanks rumbled into a refugee camp and reduced a neighborhood to rubble – the first such foray into Palestinian territory during seven months of bloodshed.
The U.S. administration is reluctant to help broker peace talks before violence ends, but U.S. mediators stepped in after the latest flare-up to arrange the meeting between Israeli and Palestinian security commanders, with participation of U.S. diplomats and CIA officials.
Gaza security chief Amin al-Hindi said that during the three-hour meeting, Israel pledged to take steps to ease pressure on the Palestinians but did not specify the steps. He said there would be another meeting Monday. There was no immediate comment from the Israelis.
Al-Hindi said the Israelis asked the Palestinians to stop the violence, but the Palestinians blamed Israel.
The Palestinians initially said they hesitated to attend the talks, following the Israeli assault with tanks and bulldozers on a neighborhood in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Israel said the pre-dawn raid was in response to mortar fire.
Two Palestinians were killed, more than two dozen wounded and 30 homes razed or heavily damaged in the raid that left hundreds homeless, according to Palestinian officials. The Israeli troops came under heavy return fire, witnesses said.
At daybreak, two camp residents with hoes tore into the rubble, retrieving blankets and pillows, while a woman collected pots and pans. Osama Hassouneh, 9, picked up the pieces of a red fire engine that he said was a gift from his father and his only toy.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat ordered 40 houses being built in the refugee camp turned over to homeless families, his office said.
Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said that despite the nighttime incursion, he had no plans to reoccupy areas of the Gaza Strip from which Israeli troops withdrew in 1994 as part of interim peace agreements.
Ben-Eliezer said troops attacked an area of Khan Yunis from which mortar shells were fired at Jewish settlements. ”These are points we don’t want the Palestinians to return to,” Ben-Eliezer told Israel radio. ”This is a clear act of defense.”
Israel says Palestinians have fired more than 50 mortar shells at Gaza settlements in recent days.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the United States opposed incursions into or fire from Palestinian territories.
”Obviously, mortar attacks from one side and bulldozing of Palestinian homes by the other undermine the conduct of serious, successful discussions,” he said.
On Wednesday evening, Palestinians fired four mortar shells toward the Nissanit settlement in Gaza and the Israeli village of Netiv Haasara village just outside the strip. One house was damaged.
In response, Israeli fired tank shells at a Palestinian border police position near the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, the army said. A convoy of U.S. cars trying to enter Gaza to pick up the Palestinian security commanders was delayed by the exchange of fire, Palestinian officials said.
As the meeting was in progress, Palestinians in Hebron opened fire on a Jewish enclave there, drawing return Israeli fire – a tank shell – that wounded six, including three members of an ambulance crew, Palestinians said. The Israeli military said there was an exchange of fire but no tanks were involved, and soldiers did not shoot at an ambulance.
Israel has said mortar shells have been fired from Palestinian security bases, a claim denied by Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo.
Abed Rabbo said the mortars were launched by activists without ties to the Palestinian Authority. ”Whenever there is such an incident (mortar fire) and we know about it, we are trying to prevent it, not encourage it,” Abed Rabbo said.
He said mortar fire has come in response to Israeli raids and pinpointed killings of Palestinians suspected by Israel of involvement in attacks on Israelis.
Both sides pinned few hopes on the security talks, which were to lead to a cease-fire and the eventual resumption of peace talks.
Previous cease-fire accords, including one personally brokered in October by former President Clinton, quickly fell apart, with each side accusing the other of not keeping promises.
Israel, meanwhile, has been cool to a Jordanian-Egyptian package under which peace talks would resume once Clinton’s cease-fire deal is implemented and Israel declares a freeze on Jewish settlement expansion.
Israel has never formally responded to the proposal, but Abed Rabbo said it was discussed by Israeli and Palestinian officials this week, and that Israel had a long list of reservations.
”They don’t want to include anything related to settlements, or anything referring to the previous negotiations or anything related to a timetable,” Abed Rabbo said.
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