JERUSALEM (Jan. 31)
Government officials are pointing to a weekend attack by Moslem fundamentalists that left two Israeli soldiers dead as proof that Israel’s temporary expulsion in December of 415 Palestinians was a justified response to Arab violence.
At the same time, U.S. Israeli discussions on resolving the deportation crisis were stepped up, and there were signs that Israel was considering some compromise measures.
U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher had what was described in Washington as a “good conversation” Friday with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The two reportedly discussed ways to defuse the crisis, but there were no further details of their exchange.
On Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet debated the issue, but apparently took no action.
The attack on the Israeli soldiers occurred Saturday, along the outskirts of a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip near the Arab town of Khan Yunis.
The Palestinian gunmen apparently knew that a single Israeli army jeep would be passing by the area on patrol. The men dug under an electronic security fence and then waited to ambush the patrol while hiding behind bushes near the settlement’s greenhouses.
As soon as the jeep arrived, the gunmen opened fire with M-16 and Karl Gustav rifles from a distance of about 20 feet, killing two soldiers instantly.
The Druse commander of the patrol, Sgt. Ibrahim Na’il, jumped from the jeep and fired back at the attackers, but missed them. The Palestinians escaped after Na’il left the scene to summon help.
HAMAS BELIEVED RESPONSIBLE
The slain soldiers were identified as Arik Arpi, 32, a reserve soldier from the Negev town of Sderot, and Salam al-Ghul, 22, from the Bedouin village of Aroer in the Negev.
Brig. Gen. Yom Tov Samia, commander of Israel’s forces in the Gaza Strip, confirmed Saturday that dozens of wanted terrorists were still at large in the Gaza Strip.
In an effort to find the men, the army clamped a curfew on the Khan Yunis area, as well as the Jabalya refugee camp and the Shajaiya neighborhood in Gaza.
The Palestinians apparently stole a gun of one of the slain soldiers and escaped into Khan Yunis. By Sunday, the army lifted the curfew, and 27,000 day laborers left for work in Israel proper.
It was the first fatal attack against soldiers since the Dec. 17 expulsion of 415 Palestinians accused of leading Islamic fundamentalist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The army said it suspected Hamas had planned Saturday’s ambush.
If so, the attack was a grim reminder that Hamas’ operational powers have not entirely been impaired and that the battle against Hamas inside the administered territories remains costly and painful, as it had been prior to the expulsions.
As the country expressed outrage at the killings, Israel’s ministers hotly debated in the Cabinet what steps, if any, should be taken to resolve the crisis over the deportations, which have been condemned by the United Nations and countries around the world.
The meeting took place amid threats that the U.N. Security Council would begin discussing what further action it should take, including the possibility of imposing sanctions, in order to force Israel into reversing the expulsions in compliance with a previous U.N. resolution.
AMBASSADOR STOPS BY FOR VISIT
The Cabinet did little other than to instruct a military advisory to review each deportee’s case individually. The move was seen here as an indication that Israel might allow the return of at least some of the deportees.
Sunday’s Cabinet meeting was interrupted at one point, when William Harrop, U.S. ambassador to Israel, came to Rabin’s office for a brief visit.
During the Cabinet discussion, Rabin reportedly refused to allow Justice Minister David Libai, the only minister who originally objected to the deportations, the opportunity to speak.
Moshe Katsav, chairman of the Likud Knesset caucus, later urged Rabin not to give in to local and international pressure on the deportations. He promised Rabin the Likud’s backing on the issue, support he noted that Rabin “did not receive from his own ministers.”
Another Likud Knesset member, Benjamin Netanyahu, called on Rabin to tell U.S. President Clinton that Israel would pull out of the peace talks if the United Nations imposed sanctions on Israel.
Israel’s attempt to let the Palestinians appeal their expulsions individually before military tribunals has so far been rejected by the deportees.
None of the deportees showed up during the weekend to submit an appeal request at the Israeli-controlled Zumriya checkpoint on the edge of the border security zone in southern Lebanon. The deportees are living in a makeshift tent camp stranded between the Israeli-controlled zone and Lebanese army lines.
The deportees seemed to be unified in boycotting any contacts with Israel and in demanding an unconditional and immediate return to their homes.