- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 29, 2001

JERUSALEM Ignoring Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's truce order, two members of the militant Islamic Jihad group yesterday attacked an Israeli army patrol in the Gaza Strip in a failed suicide mission. Troops killed one assailant and found remnants of an explosives belt near his body.
The latest violent incident followed Israel's decision earlier in the day to lift a blockade of Bethlehem, the second West Bank town where travel restrictions were eased this week in response to a recent drop in violence.
Palestinian attacks on Israelis have decreased sharply since Dec. 16, when Mr. Arafat called for an end to attacks against Israelis, saying he has always denounced suicide bombings.
However, Israel's army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, yesterday dismissed Mr. Arafat's crackdown on militants, saying the Palestinian Authority itself is "infected by terror from head to toe and does everything to disrupt our lives and to bring terrorism to our doorsteps."
The Palestinian Cabinet demanded after its weekly session yesterday that the United States send its special mediator, retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, back to the region as soon as possible to oversee confidence-building measures that would lead to an eventual resumption of peace talks.
Israel TV's Channel Two said Gen. Zinni was expected to return to the Middle East by next week if there is no major outburst of violence. He left the region in mid-December, after a failed three-week truce mission that coincided with a sharp increase in violence. The State Department would not comment on the general's possible return.
Yesterday's thwarted attack in Gaza was the first major attempt by Islamic militants to challenge Mr. Arafat's truce efforts.
Hamas, the larger of the two main Islamic militant groups, has said it would suspend suicide attacks in Israel, though not in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while the smaller Islamic Jihad never made a commitment to halt violence.
The predawn attack took place along a road near the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in the central Gaza Strip, said the Israeli commander in the area, Lt. Col. Erez Katz.
Two assailants carrying two anti-tank missiles, a Kalashnikov assault rifle and ammunition fired on Israeli soldiers on patrol in the area, Col. Katz said. Troops returned massive fire. At daybreak, soldiers found the decapitated body of one of the attackers and remnants of an explosives belt.
The second attacker fled the scene, the officer said.
In a message videotaped before the attack and aired later on the Lebanese TV station Al Manar, Mahmoud Burai, 23, from the Gaza refugee camp of Jebaliya, said he was preparing for a suicide mission.
Israeli troops lifted the blockade of Bethlehem to allow free travel in and out of the town. Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said that Israel was lifting the restrictions to ease access to holy sites during the Christmas season.
The roadblocks, which Israel says are necessary to keep out suicide bombers, have choked off West Bank Palestinian towns through most of the 15 months of Palestinian-Israeli fighting.
Although prospects for peace talks remained distant, Mr. Arafat said in remarks broadcast on Fox TV that the Palestinians "are ready to be very positive" if Israel offers something concrete in talks between top Israeli and Palestinian officials on a possible framework for a peace deal.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia were to resume contacts this weekend, a Palestinian security source said.

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