Sharon government rejects harsh criticism of warplane attack
JERUSALEM (AP) – A top Palestinian security official was slightly wounded in an Israeli tank attack on his house Sunday, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defended his decision to use F-16 fighter jets in earlier retaliatory raids against the Palestinians.
Despite the violence, a moderate tone was sounded in Cairo, where Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said his efforts toward an Israeli-Palestinian truce would continue. He appeared to be ignoring a call from Arab League foreign ministers on Saturday to break all diplomatic contacts with Israel.
Meanwhile, in New York, thousands of people marched in midtown Manhattan on Sunday in an annual rally to show solidarity with Israel. In the Jewish state, security was tightened in preparation for the annual ”Jerusalem Day” celebration beginning at sundown. Israel planned a series of marches in Jerusalem to show support for maintaining all of the city as the capital.
The Palestinians are demanding the part that Israel occupied in 1967 – including the Old City with its Muslim, Jewish and Christian holy sites – as their future capital, and this was one of the main sticking points in aborted peace talks.
The attack on Jibril Rajoub’s house in Ramallah was a surprise, as he is considered one of the more moderate Palestinian leaders and his Preventive Security force has not been a major player in the eight months of fighting. Earlier in the day Rajoub had hosted a group of Israeli journalists at his house.
The house was hit by tank shells and badly damaged. Witnesses said one shell exploded inside and two others landed outside. Two men helped Rajoub from his house, blood visible on his hand. Three other Palestinians were lightly injured.
”It’s a clear message to the international community that the Israeli government is insisting to use state terror against the Palestinian people,” Rajoub said afterward. He added, however: ”I don’t think that this is an assassination attempt on my life.”
The Israeli military said the shelling came during a fierce exchange of fire between Palestinian gunmen and soldiers guarding the nearby settlement of Psagot. Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said the troops did not try to strike at Rajoub.
One Israeli soldier was also wounded in the exchange. An Israeli school bus was hit by bullets, but no one was hurt.
In Jerusalem, Sharon convened Cabinet ministers to discuss the latest violence, which claimed the lives of six Israelis and 16 Palestinians, including a suicide bomber who blew himself up outside an Israeli shopping center on Friday morning.
Sharon came under withering criticism for Israel’s use of fighter planes in its retaliatory strikes against Palestinian towns. It was the first time warplanes were used against Palestinian targets since the 1967 war.
Raanan Gissin, a Sharon aide, said the use of the warplanes was a message to the Palestinians that Israel will not put up with suicide bomb attacks. Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, chief of army operations, said the chosen targets were too strong for helicopter-fired rockets to penetrate.
The move was criticized in Israel’s newspapers. Haaretz analyst Zeev Schiff warned of escalation ”into a more extreme and dangerous phase.” Maariv’s Hemi Shalev said Israel’s leaders should ”be more levelheaded,” and Yediot Ahronot’s Alex Fishman said the strikes showed ”weakness and frustration.”
In all, the violence has claimed 469 lives on the Palestinian side and 84 on the Israeli side.
Egypt, meanwhile, said cease-fire efforts would continue. An Egyptian-Jordanian proposal requires Israel to end all construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza – a call which Israel opposes and which also appears in a draft report by an international commission led by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.
”The Egyptian-Jordanian initiative is still on the table, and we should continue (efforts) to reactivate it,” Mubarak told reporters.
On Saturday, the Arab League recommended ceasing all Arab political contacts with Israel ”as long as the aggression and blockades against the Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority continue.”
But in a statement, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said the recommendation ”has nothing to do with the (Israeli-Egyptian) peace treaty and has nothing to do with embassies, which will continue working normally.”
Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. In 1994, Jordan became the second Arab country to do so.
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney urged both sides to think about whether to go down the road to ”disaster” but declined to say what the United States would do if the Israelis continued to use the U.S.-made F-16s. ”It’s a very delicate situation,” Cheney said on NBC’s ”Meet the Press,” adding he was not trying ”to evaluate the exact decisions” by Israeli defense forces.
To U.S. Sen. John McCain, the warplanes’ involvement indicates a ”perhaps spiraling out of control of this situation.”
The Arizona Republican said he thinks the administration should make proposals ”that would be at least a basis for ratcheting down” the violence and appoint a special envoy to the region.
”I think we have to re-engage, and forcefully so, before the situation spreads throughout the Middle East,” he said on ABC’s ”This Week.”
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