Israel calls for more diplomacy

Ya´acov and Shiri Shefi embrace at their 5-year-old daughter Danielle´s funeral, a day after she was shot to death in her home by a Palestinian terrorist, in a Kiryat Gat cemetery April 28. (Brian Hendler)

Ya´acov and Shiri Shefi embrace at their 5-year-old daughter Danielle´s funeral, a day after she was shot to death in her home by a Palestinian terrorist, in a Kiryat Gat cemetery April 28. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM, May 1 (JTA) — With Israel´s military operation in the West Bank nearly over, Israeli officials are calling for a speedy resumption of the diplomatic process. Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer warned Wednesday that unless diplomatic efforts resume soon, fresh violence could erupt, Israel Radio reported. The warning came hours before Israeli troops began withdrawing from Yasser Arafat´s Ramallah compound — a breakthrough achieved after Israel accepted a plan put forward by the United States. Arafat turned over six wanted men who had been holed up with the Palestinian Authority president in his besieged Ramallah compound. The men will be kept in a Palestinian jail, monitored by American and British officials. In return, Israeli troops will end the siege they imposed on Arafat´s headquarters March 29, leaving him free to travel in the Palestinian territories or abroad. In another diplomatic development this week, Israel refused to allow a U.N. fact-finding mission to visit the Jenin refugee camp. That rejection came after a weekend in which Palestinian terrorists struck again. In the days before Ben-Eliezer called for more diplomatic activity, a spokesman for Ariel Sharon said the prime minister would be visiting the White House next week. Along with his warning that violence could escalate in the absence of diplomatic activity, Ben-Eliezer added Wednesday that the Israel Defense Force is prepared to enter the Gaza Strip if events warrant. Israeli troops did not operate in Gaza during Operation Protective Wall, which began March 29 in an attempt to round up terrorists and collect illegal arms in Palestinian-controlled cities. Speaking during a visit to the settlement of Alei Sinai, Ben-Eliezer said the relative quiet in Gaza was misleading. There were 14 attempted infiltrations and attacks against Israeli settlements there in the past month, he said. On Tuesday night alone, at least three Palestinians were killed during clashes in Gaza. In one incident, Israeli troops shot and killed two Palestinians and arrested four others who opened fire on the troops as they searched for arms- smuggling tunnels near Gaza´s border with Egypt. Palestinians said a 2-year-old girl also was killed in the exchange, but the Israeli army said it had no knowledge of the death. In another incident, the Israeli army said one Palestinian was killed and another arrested after terrorists detonated a bomb beside an army tank in the border area. Ben-Eliezer spoke shortly before Israel lifted its siege around Arafat´s Ramallah compound. Under the terms of the deal, the wanted men will be held at a prison in Jericho. They include the four assassins of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze´evi; the head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the group to which the four assassins belong; and the P.A. official who oversaw a $50 million weapons shipment from Iran that Israel intercepted in January. Arafat is now free to leave Ramallah, and is expected to travel soon to Egypt and Europe to drum up support for the Palestinian cause. After Israel backed off from its demand to extradite the six, the hawkish Israel, Our Home — National Unity bloc canceled plans to return to Sharon´s government. When the Cabinet agreed on Sunday to the U.S. plan for ending the siege, the move elicited a positive response from the United States. "The president views the vote of the Israeli Cabinet as helpful and constructive," the White House said in a statement. "The next move is up to Yasser Arafat." Israel´s communications minister, Reuven Rivlin, hinted at a link between Israel´s acceptance of the Ramallah proposal and the decision about the U.N. panel. Amid uncertainty and wariness over how the U.N. mission will proceed, Israel will need firm U.S. backing, Rivlin said Sunday. The acceptance of the U.S. plan came just after Bush met at his Texas ranch with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. During the visit, Abdullah presented Bush with an eight-point peace plan that included an end to the Israeli siege at Ramallah. The visit reportedly resulted in an agreement on how to work toward ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Under the deal, the United States will use its influence over Israel to prod it toward compromise, while the Saudis will do the same with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and the broader Arab world, The New York Times reported Wednesday. The Bush-Abdullah meeting came amid a weekend of renewed Palestinian terror. On Saturday, Palestinian terrorists wearing Israeli army uniforms infiltrated a Jewish settlement and killed four people, including a 5-year-old girl shot in the head while she was in her bed. The gunmen wounded seven other people, including the girl´s mother and two siblings, aged 2 and 4. The attack occurred after at least two terrorists cut through the perimeter fence of the Adura settlement near Hebron. They burst into several homes, shooting some of the victims as they lay sleeping before escaping toward Palestinian-controlled Hebron. In another major development this week, Israel´s Cabinet voted against allowing a U.N. fact-finding panel to visit the Jenin refugee camp. The fate of the panel was uncertain Wednesday, with U.N. Secretary- General Kofi Annan saying he would await the advice of the Security Council. On Sunday, before the Cabinet voted against the panel, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said the panel´s mission amounted to a search for a "blood libel" against Israel. The panel was going to investigate Palestinian claims of an Israeli massacre of innocent civilians when Israeli forces scoured the camp for terrorists earlier this month. That claim seems to be disintegrating as aid workers comb through the wreckage of the camp and even Palestinian fighters and civilians contradict the official Palestinian Authority version of events. On Monday, aid workers in the camp said there had been no massacre in the camp. The workers said they have so far unearthed 52 bodies in the rubble, CNN reported, almost all of them of fighters. A day later, Israeli military officials charged that Palestinians have been moving bodies already buried in a cemetery next to the Jenin hospital to inflate the number of dead in the refugee camp. This was but the latest instance of Palestinian efforts to show greater damage than actually was inflicted by Israeli troops, before the U.N. committee arrives, the officials said. In addition, they added, members of the Palestinian Authority ordered families and aid workers to stop searching for bodies trapped under rubble, so they will be found only when the team arrives. On Tuesday, Israel´s Security Cabinet reiterated the decision reached Sunday by the government and rejected the U.N. panel. In a statement issued later, the Security Cabinet said Israel had raised with U.N. officials the issues it considers essential to a fair investigation. Until those conditions are met, it said, Israel will not cooperate with the mission. Israel wants a say over who can be called as a witness and what documents will be presented to the panel, and insists that Israeli soldiers who testify be immune from prosecution. Israel also wants more counter-terrorism experts added to the panel, and demands that activities by Palestinian terrorists who used the refugee camp as a base also be scrutinized.

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