JERUSALEM (Mar. 10)
For the first time in months, there are signs that Israel and the Palestinians may be able to resume seeking a diplomatic solution to their conflict.
The signs emerged just days before the U.S. envoy to the Middle East, Anthony Zinni, was due to return to the region on a mission spurred by spiraling Israeli-Palestinian violence.
That violence — including two terror attacks Saturday night that killed 13 people — had left many believing that Zinni would achieve as little as he had during his two previous attempts at peacemaking last December and January.
But, at the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took steps that may help Zinni’s mission bear fruit.
In a significant policy shift over the weekend, Sharon announced he is dropping his demand for seven days of quiet before entering cease-fire negotiations.
Dismissing a right-wing outcry that he is reversing his long-standing policy of not negotiating under fire, Sharon said he was acting out of national responsibility — and from the realization that seven days of quiet are currently unachievable.
Defending the policy shift, Sharon said in a televised speech Sunday night that a cease-fire with the Palestinians is his “primary objective.” He added that he has an obligation to take all necessary steps to achieve the cease-fire and that he is ready to take any criticism for the policy.
In another major development that may smooth the way to a resumption of diplomacy, Sharon also said in the speech that he is willing to release Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who has been under virtual house arrest since December.
Sharon said Arafat had fulfilled Israel’s demands by arresting those who allegedly killed Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi last October.
“I said once they were arrested I would let him leave,” Sharon said. “Once you achieve your demands, you must carry out your commitments.”
“This is not capitulation,” Sharon added. “We stuck to our demands, and they were met.”
He said the siege on Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah would not be lifted immediately because of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem on Saturday. “But at the end of the day, I believe the conditions will exist in which we can do this,” he said.
The prime minister’s remarks were welcomed by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who last week criticized Sharon’s statements that the Palestinians must be “hit hard” until the learn they will achieve nothing through terror.
At the same time, Powell made clear that during Zinni’s mission, the United States expects that Israel and the Palestinians will take meaningful steps to implement a cease-fire plan drawn up last year by CIA Director George Tenet.
Zinni is not coming back just to travel between Ramallah and Jerusalem, Powell said.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was reportedly involved in efforts to try to calm the situation on the ground ahead of Zinni’s arrival. There were also reports that the two sides would hold meetings as early as Monday.
But the question remained whether events on the ground will enable Sharon to follow through on his announcements — and whether Arafat will be able, and willing, to reduce the level of Palestinian attacks.
Both Israel and the Palestinians absorbed heavy casualties over the weekend in another cycle of Palestinian terror attacks and Israeli military actions.
Thirteen Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and Netanya on Saturday night.
In the Jerusalem attack, 11 Israelis were killed and at least 54 injured in a suicide bombing at a popular cafe.
Cafe Moment in the Rehavia neighborhood was filled with young people when a 22-year-old Palestinian detonated a massive bomb at 10:30 p.m., gutting the restaurant.
The cafe is located some 200 yards from the office of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon where, earlier in the evening, some 300 Israeli peace activists had gathered to demand an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In the Netanya attack, two Palestinian terrorists shot dead two Israelis and injured about 50 on Saturday. An Israeli civilian also was killed in the crossfire between police and the terrorists after the attack, which occurred in the city’s seaside hotel district.
The names of the 13 people killed in Saturday night’s terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and Netanya were released Sunday.
The victims of the Jerusalem suicide bombing are Limor Ben-Shoham, 27; Orit Ozerov, 28; Avraham Haim Rahamim, 29; Livnat Dvash, 28; Dan Emunei, 23; Tali Eliyahu, 26 — all of Jerusalem; Uri Felix, 25, and Nir Borochov, 22 — both of Givat Ze’ev; Danit Dagan, 25 of Tel Aviv; Natanel Kochavi, 31, of Kiryat Ata; and Baruch Lerner, 29, of Eli.
The two people killed in the Netanya shooting attack were identified as Israel Yihye, 27, of Bnei Brak, and Avia Malka, a 9-month-old infant from South Africa whose family was visiting relatives in Israel.
Israel launched reprisals following the two terror attacks. As part of those reprisals, Israeli helicopters pounded Arafat’s compound and an adjacent security headquarters in Gaza early Sunday morning.
In another incident on Saturday night, an Israeli soldier on leave was run over and killed by an army jeep. The Israeli had gotten out of his car after it came under fire from an ambush. Israeli troops arriving at the scene mistook him for a terrorist and ran him over.
On Sunday, an Israeli was killed and another wounded Sunday in a shooting attack at a Gaza Strip settlement. The man killed was Staff Sgt. Kobi Eichelboim, 21, of Givatayim.
Meanwhile, Israeli air, sea and land bombardments continued in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Palestinian officials said 42 Palestinians were killed in Israel’s weekend military operations.
Last Friday alone, more than 30 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier were killed during Israeli raids on villages and refugee camps.
Ending the bloodiest week since the intifada began in September 2000, Staff-Sgt. Edward Korol, 20, was killed during fierce fighting in the Tulkarm refugee camp.
Among the 30 Palestinians killed in the fighting was a general in the Palestinian Authority security services.
The Israeli raids aimed to destroy the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure, confiscate weapons and dismantle weapons laboratories.
The raids came after five Israeli teen-agers were killed and 23 others wounded by a Palestinian terrorist in a Gaza settlement on March 7.
The five were killed when the terrorist cut through fences into the settlement, opened fire and threw grenades.
The dead were identified as Asher Marcus, Ariel Zana and Eran Picard, from Jerusalem; Tal Kurtzweil from Bnei Brak; and Arik Krobiak from Beit El. All were 18 years old.
On Sunday, Israeli troops withdrew from Tulkarm and took up positions at the entrance to the West Bank city. During the Israeli incursion in the Tulkarm refugee camp, some 1,300 Palestinians — some 200 of whom were armed — turned themselves in.
On Sunday, Israel’s Security Cabinet authorized the continuation of the stepped-up military operations in the territories.
The Israeli army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, said they would continue “as long as is necessary.”