- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 24, 2000

JERUSALEM Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak moved closer to establishing an emergency coalition with opposition leader Ariel Sharon, the man Palestinians blame for provoking the current spasm of violence, as street clashes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip continued unabated.

Israeli security forces clamped down on Palestinian areas, closing the airport in the Gaza Strip and sealing off a West Bank town that has been the source of shooting on Gilo, a Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem.

Mr. Barak and Mr. Sharon met twice yesterday, a day after Mr. Barak said Israel would take a break from Middle East peace talks because of the violence, which Palestinians say Mr. Sharon triggered with his visit to a Jerusalem shrine last month.

They failed to reach an agreement on a mechanism for power sharing, but officials in Mr. Sharon's Likud party said later that the sides were not far apart. Spokesmen for both men, who met for about two hours in the prime minister's office, said further talks would be held late today.

Palestinians and some left-leaning Israelis criticized Mr. Barak's move as a blow to the peace process, which already is ailing from the worst violence the region has seen in years.

"He is meeting Sharon's condition. The man is exiting from the peace process," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, one Palestinian was killed by Israeli soldiers and two others died from wounds sustained earlier this week, bringing the death toll in nearly four weeks of violence to 128, mostly Palestinians.

Friction in the past few days has centered in areas where Israelis and Palestinians live in close quarters.

In Gilo, an area beyond the green line that separates Israel from the West Bank but one that Israelis consider a neighborhood of Jerusalem, shots were fired from the adjacent Arab village of Beit Jala for the third consecutive night.

The bullets, fired from automatic rifles, hit at least 12 buildings where Jews live, wounding no one but adding to the feeling of siege in Gilo. Residents of Jerusalem said 1967 was the last time that a neighborhood of the city had come under such sustained fire.

A six-year Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s and early 1990s marked the last time Israelis and Palestinians fought protracted battles. But during that period, the violence generally was contained to West Bank cities and villages and directed at soldiers.

Most protesters battled Israeli troops with stones and gasoline bombs. In the past few weeks, many of the clashes that begin with stone throwing have deteriorated quickly to gunbattles.

The commander of Israeli forces in the Beit Jala area said that if the attacks did not stop, the army would respond more harshly, ultimately destroying homes and vehicles.

"Every house from which there will be firing will simply be destroyed. Every vehicle from which there will be firing will be destroyed," Col. Marcel Aviv said.

Elsewhere in the West Bank, Israeli soldiers shot into a Palestinian home in Hebron, killing a 52-year-old man and wounding three of his children. The incident followed clashes between Arabs and Israelis in the town, which is divided between 100,000 Palestinians and 600 Jewish settlers.

Mr. Barak has cited the violence as his reason for seeking an emergency government. Mr. Sharon and Mr. Barak face opposition from their own parties to the idea, but the arrangement would serve immediate political interests of both men.

For Mr. Barak, who lost his majority when he decided in July to go to the Camp David summit for talks on a final peace deal with the Palestinians, taking in Mr. Sharon's Likud party would help him defeat a bill for early elections that comes to parliament for a vote at the end of the month.

For Mr. Sharon, a 72-year-old retired general who has refused to this day to shake hands with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, joining the coalition would put off an internal competition in his own party, in which former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen as a front-runner.

Mr. Arafat said he was not surprised at the political developments in Israel and stressed that the Palestinian people were continuing the road to Jerusalem, which they claim as the capital of a future state.

"Let him go to hell," he said, without mentioning Mr. Barak by name. President Clinton, in a telephone call to Mr. Barak, underscored his commitment to working with Israel and the Palestinians to get past the violence and ultimately get back to the peace process, a White House spokesman said.

Mr. Sharon has been one of Israel's most prominent politicians for decades. A former general with a reputation for bulldozing his way through issues, Mr. Sharon orchestrated Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

A year later, he had to quit after an Israeli inquiry found him indirectly responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacre for failing to keep Christian militiamen out of the camps despite fears they might seek to avenge the killing of their leader the previous day.

Mr. Sharon has championed Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and has said repeatedly that Israel should keep forever much of those territories, which were captured in the 1967 Middle East War.

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