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Israel cautious on U.S. report

JERUSALEM, May 8 (JTA) – Israeli officials are giving a mixed response to the findings of a U.S.-led commission probing the causes of Israeli- Palestinian violence that erupted last September – and which continues unabated seven months later.

The officials said they are pleased that the commission found that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount last September did not cause the violence that erupted soon after, as the Palestinians originally claimed.

Some Palestinian officials later admitted that the violence had been planned for months – a claim the Mitchell Commission rejected.

The commission also recommended against deploying international observers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as the Palestinians had sought.

But Israel is dismayed by the report’s linkage of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to the ongoing violence.

The report called for a halt to all Jewish settlement activity, including the “natural growth” of existing settlements.

At the same time, the report said the Palestinian leadership should crack down on terrorism if peace talks are to resume.

Sharon rejected the call for a settlement freeze. He said the recommendation by the Mitchell Commission flies in the face of previously signed Israeli-Palestinian accords, which do not state that Israel should freeze all settlement construction.

Israel has agreed not to build new settlements, but reserves the right to expand existing settlements to handle “natural population growth.”

Zalman Shoval, a Sharon adviser and former ambassador to the United States, told Israel Radio on Sunday that the committee made a “big mistake” in linking the settlement issue to the outbreak of violence.

For the Palestinians, the linkage was political gold.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian Authority minister of information, told a news conference Sunday that while the Mitchell Commission findings are not complete, they could provide a way to halt the current violence.

The commission was conceived as part of a peace package at a summit in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, last October. In the end, it was the only element of the package – whose main element was an immediate cease-fire – that was implemented.

Among the report’s other recommendations:

• The Palestinian Authority should prevent Palestinian gunmen from firing on or from populated areas, and establish a clear chain of command for all armed personnel operating in areas under its control;

• Israel should lift closures on Palestinian areas, permit Palestinian workers to return to their jobs in Israel and transfer to the Palestinian Authority all tax revenues owed; and

• Israel should ensure that its security forces avoid destroying homes, roads and trees in Palestinian areas.

The report was presented to Israeli and Palestinian officials last Friday. A final report will be published after the two sides have a chance to respond.

Panel members include former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, the group’s chairman; Turkish President Suleyman Demirel; Thorbjoern Jagland, Norway’s minister of foreign affairs; and Javier Solana, the European Union’s top diplomat.

The issue of Jewish settlements also is emerging as a stumbling block to an Egyptian-Jordanian initiative aimed at stopping the violence and restarting peace talks. The initiative, drafted with the help of Palestinian officials, calls for an end to all settlement activity.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres visited Egypt, Jordan and the United States in recent weeks to offer Israeli input on the plan.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Amre Moussa, however, was quoted Sunday as saying that no changes could be made to the proposal.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat over the weekend called for an international summit in Sharm el-Sheik to discuss the Mitchell Committee conclusions.

Israel rejected the idea. Sources in Jerusalem were quoted as saying that Arafat made the suggestion in an effort to get an invitation to the White House and forge closer ties with Washington.

Meanwhile, violence in the region showed no signs of abating.

On Tuesday, an Israeli was murdered by terrorists while guarding empty mobile homes near the West Bank Jewish settlement of Itamar. Aryeh Arnaldo Agranioni, 44, was stabbed and shot.

A previously unknown group claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the murder was to avenge the death last week in Ramallah of Hassan Kadi, a member of Arafat’s Fatah movement.

On Monday, Sharon apologized after Israeli troops killed a Palestinian infant girl when they shelled the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.

The girl’s mother, grandmother and three siblings were wounded in the shelling.

The Israel Defense Force said it was responding to a Palestinian mortar attack on the nearby Jewish settlement of Netzarim. “Children and babies should not be involved in this terrible war,” Sharon said.

Earlier Monday, the IDF briefly entered a Palestinian-controlled area during exchanges of fire with Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank city of Tulkarm.

The troops struck a Palestinian police post from which they had been fired at, according to an IDF official. One Palestinian was reported killed during the firefight.

The incursion into Tulkarm came after the IDF issued new orders that allow field commanders to make the decision themselves whether to enter Palestinian-controlled areas during the heat of battle, rather than first seek permission from their superiors.

Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said Sunday that the new orders were issued for security reasons.

Ben-Eliezer made the announcement after Israeli forces briefly entered the Arab town of Beit Jalla on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem. The incursion came after Palestinian gunmen fired at cars on a road linking Jerusalem to Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Palestinian sources reported that a Palestinian militia officer was killed during heavy fighting in Beit Jalla.

Ben-Eliezer called the army action a tactical response to the situation on the ground, and said the IDF has no strategic interest in retaking Palestinian-controlled territory.

In other violence Sunday, five Israelis were hospitalized – one for light wounds and four for shock – after a bomb exploded in a trash can in the city of Petach Tikva on Sunday morning. The blast was the third to rock the Tel Aviv suburb in recent weeks.

In the Gaza Strip, Palestinians on Sunday fired four mortar shells at the nearby Israeli town of Sderot and at the settlement of Netzarim, but the attacks caused no injuries.

Following a similar mortar attack last Friday on a kibbutz in the western Negev, Ben-Eliezer questioned the utility of security contacts with the Palestinians and said he would reconsider them.

In another development, Israel did not comment on Palestinian accusations that Israeli forces were behind the killing of a local Islamic Jihad leader killed by sniper fire Saturday near his home in the Bethlehem area.

The Shin Bet domestic security service recently detained two Palestinians who assisted the activist, Ahmed Khalil Issa Assad, and said he had been involved in planning terrorist attacks inside Israel, including two car bombings.

Also on Saturday, Israel fired missiles at the Palestinian intelligence headquarters in Jericho, charging that officials there had been involved in terror attacks against Israel.

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