Tense Atmosphere Grips Negotiations in Wake of Killings of Palestinians

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resumed their talks this week in a tense atmosphere, following a fatal clash between Israeli troops and Palestinian police near the Erez checkpoint in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli and Palestinian officials had differing accounts of what happened Monday night, when three Palestinian police officers were killed in a shootout with Israeli soldiers.

The joint Israeli-Palestinian Supreme Liaison Committee, which oversees the ongoing negotiations by the two sides, met Tuesday to investigate the incident.

Israeli officers said the Israeli troops were carrying out a routine patrol on the Israeli side of the Gaza Strip border when they were fired on from the Palestinian side of the boundary. The Israeli soldiers returned fire.

Reinforcements that arrived on the scene also came under fire when they crossed the border to catch the gunmen, Officials said.

After the soldiers called on the gunmen to surrender, on Palestinian policeman emerged from the building with his hands up. But another came out firing, and in the ensuing shootout, three Palestinian police officers were killed, according to Israeli officials.

None of the Israeli soldiers were hurt.

Palestinian police officials said that they did not start the confrontation. One Palestinian source said the three officers were shot in their sleep by Israeli soldiers.

There was some speculation that the original shots may have been fired by a third group deliberately firing on the Israelis from a spot near the building where the Palestinian police were based, Israel Radio reported.

The dead policemen were members of the Palestine Liberation organization who came to Gaza from Libya. They reportedly had no connection to the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement, which has vowed to derail the Israeli- Palestinian peace process.

Palestine Liberation Chairman Yasser Arafat, addressing a crowd of some 2,000 Palestinians at the funeral for the Palestinian policemen Tuesday, said the policemen should be regarded as martyrs who died during the struggle to establish Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

“Let no one think that they can scare us with their stronger weapons, for we have a mightier weapon, the weapon of faith, the weapon of martyrdom, the weapon of Jihad (holy war),” Arafat said.

In Cairo, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said the Israeli soldiers had acted properly under the circumstances. He also expressed regret for the outcome of the events.

Peres, along with Environment Minister Yossi Sarid and Police Minister Moshe Shahal, flew to Cairo on Tuesday to attend the meeting of the liaison committee. Israeli and Palestinians attended scheduled talks to address the next phase of the Palestinian self-rule accord.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Nabil Sha’ath told reporters that he and Peres were holding their meetings in an atmosphere of crisis.

“There is no doubt there is a major sense of urgency and crisis that has brought us here to this meeting,” he said.

But Peres attempted to sound a more optimistic note, saying, “We have to overcome a great deal of difficulties and we are trying to do our best. We are building a new history.”

Earlier in the day, Peres held talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian leader reassured the Israeli foreign minister that resolutions adopted last week by Arab leaders at summit in Alexandria would not impact Egypt’s relations with Israel.

At their Dec. 29 meeting, Mubarak, Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd and Syrian President Hafez Assad agreed that peace in the Middle East should be achieved on the basis of U.N. Security Council resolutions calling on Israel to withdraw from Arab lands and on the principle of land for peace.

The leaders also called on Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Syria.

The surprise summit meeting had reportedly angered Israeli officials.

Monday’s shootout in Gaza was not the only source of tensions that day between Israeli and Palestinians.

In a separate incident occurring near the village of Tekoa in the West Bank, Israeli troops shot dead two members of Hamas.

Israel Television reported that the two men, ages 22 and 32, were in a car on their way to Jerusalem to carry out a terrorist attack. They aroused the suspicion of an army patrol, which ordered them to pull over.

The occupants opened fire on the soldiers with automatic weapons. In the shootout, the two men were killed, and another occupant was believed to have escaped.

Palestinians held a general strike in Bethlehem on Tuesday to protest the killings.

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