Death toll mounts in Israeli-Palestinian violence

JERUSALEM, Aug. 26 (JTA) — Israeli-Palestinian violence has reached one of its most intense levels, dashing any hopes there may have been for planned cease-fire talks between the two sides.

Accompanying the violence, there was a new war of words: In addition to the charges and countercharges that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have traded during the past 11 months of violence, this verbal war involved the United States and the Palestinians.

On Sunday, there was fighting reported in several cities across the West Bank, including Ramallah, Tulkarm and Bethlehem.

Israeli tanks opened fire on Palestinian security positions in Ramallah and Tulkarm after a 50-year-old Israeli from Netanya was killed in an apparent drive-by shooting in Israel near the West Bank. Police believe the attackers fled back into the West Bank after carrying out Sunday’s assault near Kibbutz Magal.

Earlier Sunday, Israeli jets destroyed the Palestinian police headquarters in Gaza City as well as other Palestinian security and intelligence buildings in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. One Palestinian was killed and 18 injured in the raids.

Israel said the early morning raids came in retaliation for the killings of three Israeli soldiers and two Jewish settlers in two separate Palestinian attacks Saturday.

The Al-Aksa Brigades, which is affiliated with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah Party, claimed responsibility for a drive-by shooting Saturday evening that killed a married Israeli couple — Sharon and Yaniv Ben-Shalom — as they drove home near the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The wife’s brother, Doron Sabari, 21, died Sunday of wounds sustained in the attack. The couple’s two infant children were lightly wounded by the gunmen.

The drive-by shooting followed a pre-dawn raid Saturday in which two Palestinian militants entered an army base in Gaza.

After penetrating the Marganit army post, located near the Israeli settlement of Bedolah, the two militants killed three Israeli soldiers, including a major, and wounded seven others.

The two infiltrated the post from Palestinian-ruled Khan Yunis around three a.m., taking the soldiers, some of whom were sleeping, by surprise.

According to a statement issued by the Israel Defense Force, the gunmen fired and threw grenades at the troops. A 10-minute battle ensued.

The three Israeli fatalities were Maj. Gil Oz, 30, Staff Sgt. Nir Kobi, 21, and Sgt. Tsach Grebley, 19.

The two militants were later killed by Israeli fire.

The Damascus-based Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility for the assault. But the army suspects the involvement of a Fatah-linked cell that operates in the Khan Yunis area.

Senior army officials later acknowledged that the raid reflected a level of daring not previously demonstrated by Palestinian gunmen.

The incident also raised questions about the IDF’s military preparedness.

In a briefing on the incident, the head of the IDF southern command, Maj. Gen. Doron Almog, said he would have “expected a different outcome from a face-to-face battle.”

Israel’s army set up a committee to investigate military “weaknesses” that allowed the militants to enter the base.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer called the raid “very grave” and instructed army officials to provide him with the inquiry’s conclusions as soon as possible.

Following the raid, Israeli tanks and bulldozers on Sunday entered Rafah — the southern Gaza town from which the two militants came — and destroyed a Palestinian security building and several security checkpoints. The Israeli forces withdrew within several hours.

The latest violence followed efforts to arrange a meeting between Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to discuss a cease-fire.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, on a visit to the region last week, offered to host the meeting.

Israeli and Palestinian officials alike are now downplaying the likelihood of the meeting.

Indeed, there was mounting pressure on Peres from within the Sharon government to cancel the meeting. Hawkish Israeli Cabinet members spoke out over the weekend against the meeting, which was expected to take place soon in Berlin.

Arafat returned to Gaza on Sunday after visiting the Far East last week in an effort to drum up support for the Palestinian cause.

Brandishing a pistol, Arafat inspected the destruction by the Israeli assault on the Palestinian headquarters in Gaza City and declared that the Palestinians would never bow to Israeli shows of force.

Arafat also brushed off U.S. criticism for failing to end violence with Israel, hinting that the Bush administration was partially to blame for the continued bloodshed.

Arafat’s comments came after President Bush blamed the Palestinians for failing to break the deadlock in the Middle East conflict, saying Arafat could end the violence if he tried harder.

Speaking in Texas last Friday, Bush called on Arafat to “stop the suicide bombings, to stop the incursions, to stop the threats.” Bush also said he understands the Israelis will not negotiate under the threat of terrorism.

Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi harshly criticized Bush’s comments.

“We have now a full and absolute American bias. An American president is parroting the Israeli point of view,” Ashrawi said.

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