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Hopes for talks down after bombings

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JERUSALEM, Sept. 5 (JTA) — Hopes for a possible cease-fire meeting between Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat have risen, despite five bomb attacks in Jerusalem this week.

Just a day after prospects for a meeting appeared dim, both Peres and Arafat spoke optimistically of the possibility of meeting to try to arrange a lasting cease-fire to nearly a year of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Peres told reporters that he prefers to meet with Arafat in the region, and away from the prying eyes of the media.

Previous meetings between the pair have resulted in cease-fire agreements that failed to take hold.

The news of possible cease-fire talks contrasted sharply with the reality on the ground this week, as Palestinians detonated five bombs across Jerusalem in the space of barely 24 hours.

In the most violent attack, a Palestinian suicide bomber disguised as a fervently Orthodox Jew blew himself up outside a hospital entrance in downtown Jerusalem Tuesday, wounding 21 people, one of them critically.

The bomber detonated his explosives when two border police approached him.

Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack, which came a day after four bombs exploded in Jerusalem — in the French Hill, Gilo and Ma’alot Dafna neighborhoods — slightly wounding three people.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine reportedly claimed responsibility for Monday’s blasts, saying they were in retaliation for Israel’s assassination last week of the group’s leader.

Tuesday’s suicide bombing took place shortly before 8 a.m., not far from the site of a suicide bombing last month at the Sbarro pizzeria that killed 15.

Police said that several minutes before Tuesday’s explosion, a number of civilians had reported a suspicious figure in the area. Moments before the blast, two police officers saw a man who appeared to be Orthodox walk briskly past them, looking anxious.

“A woman came up after him and said he looked suspicious, so we turned around and followed him,” one of the officers, Guy Mugrabi, told Israel Radio.

“We did not yell at him to stop, because at that hour, Nevi’im Street is blaring with horns and traffic,” Mugrabi said.

The officers approached the man, who “didn’t notice us at first. Then he stopped, glanced back toward us, smiled and extended his hand back and reached into a rear pocket of the bag. It was then clear what was going to happen,” Mugrabi said.

Mugrabi said the seconds before the blast were “like a movie. I thought of everything that is dear to me.”

Mugrabi was slightly wounded in the blast; his fellow officer sustained critical wounds to the head.

Reaction to the bombing followed a familiar pattern. Israel said it holds Arafat responsible for the attack, while Arafat said he regrets attacks against civilians in general, “whether they are Palestinians or Israelis,” without condemning Tuesday’s specific incident.

Mugrabi said he had been stationed in Jerusalem as part of stepped-up security against terrorism. These measures lessened the casualties of Monday’s bombings, according to Israeli security sources, who believe the PFLP had intended to target schools, which had just opened for the academic year.

Violence continued on Wednesday, as Israeli missiles hit a Palestinian police post in the Gaza Strip. Palestinian sources said one person was injured.

The missile attack came after Palestinians fired mortars into an Israeli community in the Gaza Strip, injuring no one.

In Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood, the school year opened on schedule after a cease-fire was reached last week through European Union mediation. The cease-fire ended both Palestinian gunfire on Gilo and an Israeli troop incursion into Beit Jalla, the nearby Palestinian-controlled town used by gunmen to fire at Gilo.

But top Israeli and Palestinian officials were pessimistic this week about prospects for further talks between Peres and Arafat aimed at broadening the cease-fire to other areas wracked by violence.

Reports this week said Peres and Arafat may meet in Italy, where both are due to attend an economic conference. However, Arafat said in Amman this week that no decision has been taken on a meeting with Peres.

He noted that his previous discussions with the Israeli foreign minister since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising had failed to achieve any progress.

Similarly, Israeli commentators questioned the utility of asking Arafat yet again for a cease-fire, after he failed to honor his commitments on numerous previous occasions. Several also said that Arafat’s recent speech to a U.N. conference against racism in South Africa, in which he harshly denounced Israel and accused it of war crimes, disqualified him as a partner for peace talks.

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