- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 27, 2001

JERUSALEM Israeli troops fired from tanks and helicopter gunships at Palestinian gunmen holed up in a West Bank house yesterday, killing one man and wounding two in an incursion into a Palestinian-controlled town. In a separate raid, Israeli troops arrested 17 suspected militants in a West Bank village.
Despite the fighting, Palestinian officials said Israel eased some restrictions, permitting the rebuilding of the landing strip at Gaza International Airport that Israeli forces destroyed this month, and agreeing to reopen the border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.
Troops also opened roads in and out of the West Bank town of Jericho, but barriers around other Palestinian communities remained in place.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said he believed Palestinians and Israelis can now resume peace talks after 15 months of violence, and that the worst is behind them.
"I think that the chances for peace had reached the lowest point, the zero point, in relations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel," Mr. Peres said during a visit to Ukraine. "I think we have departed from the zero point and begun to move."
However, the left-leaning Mr. Peres does not necessarily speak for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Earlier this week, after Mr. Peres and Palestinian parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia confirmed they have been talking about the terms of resuming peace talks, Mr. Sharon angrily denied knowledge of the contacts. Only later did Mr. Sharon confirm he knew about the Peres-Qureia talks.
Mr. Sharon is under pressure from his conservative Likud party not to make any concessions to the Palestinians, something that will be unavoidable if peace talks resume.
Environment Minister Tsachi Hanegbi, chairman of the Likud's Central Committee, said yesterday he wants to convene the body of about 3,000 members to pass a resolution opposing the establishment of a Palestinian state. The move is aimed against Mr. Sharon, who has said a Palestinian state is inevitable, but that Israel must try to keep its dimensions small.
Israeli and Palestinian security commanders met yesterday at the Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip, their first talks in a week.
The two sides agreed to reopen the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, which had been closed off and on during 15 months of fighting, said the Palestinian police chief in Gaza, Maj. Gen. Abdel Razek Majaidie.
Israeli military officers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that the Rafah crossing would be open longer hours, and that restrictions would be eased on Gaza roads.
Gen. Majaidie said Israel also agreed to let Palestinians rebuild the landing strip at Gaza International Airport, which Israeli bulldozers tore up earlier this month as part of a campaign to prevent Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from traveling abroad. The Israelis said they had no objection to the repairs.
However, Raanan Gissin, Mr. Sharon's spokesman, said that despite the airport reopening, Mr. Arafat would not be allowed to travel until Palestinian police arrest the assassins of an Israeli Cabinet minister gunned down in October.
Mr. Arafat has been stuck in the West Bank town of Ramallah since Dec. 3, when Israel destroyed his helicopters in a reprisal raid after Palestinian suicide bomb attacks in Jerusalem and Haifa.
In the West Bank town of Jenin, a gunfight erupted yesterday after Israeli troops said they spotted several armed Palestinians and chased them into a building in town. Israeli tanks drove about 300 yards into Jenin, residents said.
The military said soldiers circled the house and a gunbattle ensued. Tanks fired two shells at the building, and helicopter gunships also opened fire. Palestinian officials said a 50-year-old Palestinian was killed and two others were wounded, including a policeman.

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