Mideast truce efforts pick up despite Palestinian suicide bombing in Jerusalem
JERUSALEM (AP) – Mideast truce efforts accelerated Tuesday despite a Palestinian suicide attack, and negotiators said they are preparing a detailed agenda for several rounds of high-level negotiations that could begin this week on the sidelines of an economic conference in Italy.
European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana was in the region trying to help arrange cease-fire talks. He brought Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and two senior Palestinian officials together Monday night – the first such contacts in weeks.
The preparations came during one of the most intense spates of Palestinian bombings in more than 11 months of fighting with Israel. The bomb detonated by a suicide attacker outside a French school in Jerusalem on Tuesday was the sixth in the city in two days.
Twenty people were injured, including two Israeli paramilitary border policemen who chased the bomber – the only person who has died in any of the six bombings.
There was no claim of responsibility, though a Palestinian security official said he was told by his Israeli counterparts that the bomber apparently was from the West Bank village of Aboud, a stronghold of the Islamic militant group Hamas.
Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad group have carried out several suicide bombings in Israel since fighting broke out in September, killing dozens of Israelis.
A senior Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Israel would retaliate for the bombing with an operation in the Jerusalem area, but refused to offer details.
Sounding unusually conciliatory, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said he felt ”sad for those civilians who were injured today.” Israel blamed Arafat for the violence, saying he has done nothing to rein in militants.
After a meeting with Solana in Gaza City, Arafat thanked him for helping arrange Monday’s meeting between Peres and the Palestinian officials, Parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia and Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat.
Participants said they worked on a detailed agenda for talks between Peres and Arafat. There was no final agreement on a time and place for the Peres-Arafat meetings, but both sides agreed there would several sessions, according to officials close to the talks.
Peres and Arafat plan to attend an economic conference that starts Friday on the shores of Lake Como in Italy. A senior Palestinian official said he believed a meeting on the sidelines of the conference was likely. Peres planned to stay through the weekend, Israeli sources said.
The Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip, the Egyptian resort of Taba and New York City were also named as possible sites for subsequent talks.
Qureia said ”nonstop efforts” were being exerted to negotiate a truce and a timetable for a resumption of peace talks. He said violence could cease only if there was hope for progress toward a peace deal.
”We told Mr. Peres that without a political horizon, there will be no security horizon,” Qureia said.
Talk of a Peres-Arafat meeting last week had been put on hold after Israel killed a senior PLO official it accused of involvement in attacks on Israelis, triggering massive Palestinian shooting attacks which, in turn, prompted a two-day Israeli incursion into a West Bank town.
Israeli security forces remained on high alert, and security officials said Tuesday that the army has agreed to put hundreds of soldiers at the disposal of the Jerusalem police. The troops will set up additional checkpoints on roads leading to the city from the West Bank.
Jerusalem police announced the arrests of six militants who they said admitted involvement in two recent bombings, which caused no injuries. Police said the group plotted 12 more bombings.
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