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Attack in Southern Israel Highlights Security Concerns

A grenade attack in the Negev town of Beersheba has highlighted the leading stumbling block at the Middle East peace summit taking place thousands of miles away.

At least 64 Israelis were wounded when a Palestinian hurled two hand grenades during Monday’s morning rush hour into the Beersheba bus station.

Two people were reported in serious condition, but most suffered only minor wounds or were treated for shock. Bystanders pounced on the assailant, who was arrested.

Within hours of the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement from the Wye Plantation on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the site of the summit, that he had “no intention of stopping the talks in view of the fact that the purpose is to achieve an agreement that will ensure the security of Israel.”

But hours later, after Netanyahu conferred with his Inner Security Cabinet, he canceled planned discussions about opening a Palestinian airport in the Gaza Strip, saying in a second statement that “there is a need to focus on security and terror.”

One Palestinian official at the summit called the Israeli stance “cheap blackmail.”

Security issues have been the main sticking point from the Israeli standpoint in the talks, which began late last week and have been attended several times by President Clinton.

Palestinian officials attending the Wye talks condemned the attack, adding that they were already cracking down on terror. Some officials said the attack would give Israeli hard-liners an excuse to scuttle the peace talks.

Because of the attack, American officials are shifting their goals from obtaining a comprehensive deal to getting the two sides to agree to a partial settlement.

Clinton, who was joined by Vice President Al Gore in a full-court press to clinch a deal, returned to Wye on Monday after talks with Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon that went late the night before. On Monday, Clinton planned separate meetings with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat before bringing the two together over dinner.

In the wake of Monday’s attack, the United States released a joint Israeli- Palestinian statement saying the two sides “pledge to cooperate against the threat of terrorism and recognize that fighting terror is a vital interest for both sides.”

“At the same time,” the statement added, “we agree not to give in to the efforts of extremists to destroy the hope for peace and security for both our peoples.”

Meanwhile, Jordan’s King Hussein may join the summit, according to a U.S. State Department official. The king has been responding well to cancer treatment and is planning to travel to his Maryland home to rest, added the official.

On Monday the U.S. State Department issued a statement denying an Israeli report that the cancer afflicting Hussein is terminal.

No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin came close to doing so, saying Monday that the attack was “part of our continued resistance to the occupation of our land.”

The attack came after Hamas leaders had issued warnings that they would retaliate for the killings last month of two leaders of its military wing by Israeli security forces.

Israeli officials, who during the past several weeks thwarted what they said were planned Hamas terrorist bombings, recently lifted a closure that had been imposed on the West Bank and Gaza Strip from Rosh Hashanah until the end of Sukkot.

The assailant, who came from the Hebron area, was carrying grenades in a bag, according to witnesses.

Police said he wanted to kill soldiers, who were among the injured.

President Ezer Weizman visited the wounded at Beersheba’s Soroka Hospital and later told reporters that he believes the Wye summit should not be halted.

Communications Minister Limor Livnat gave her qualified agreement.

“Perhaps one should not have gone to [the summit] in the first place,” she said. “But once there, Premier Netanyahu will make sure that Israel’s security needs will be taken into account.”

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