- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 27, 2001

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat met yesterday and agreed on steps toward a new peace effort even as a gunbattle raged less than two miles away.
The understandings, tenuous and fraught with pitfalls, were nonetheless welcomed in Washington, where officials fear that Israeli-Palestinian fighting will hinder efforts to recruit Arab countries for a coalition against terrorism.
The United States had been pressing for the meeting the first between Mr. Peres and Mr. Arafat in three months since the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
The shooting took the life of a 16-year-old boy in the Rafah refugee camp.
Just before midnight, four Israeli tanks and a bulldozer advanced toward the camp, Palestinian security officials said. The camp was shelled and hit by heavy machine-gun fire, and the bulldozer began demolishing a house, the officials said.
Palestinian gunmen returned fire. In the exchange, a 23-year-old Palestinian was killed and 11 others wounded, doctors said.
In a sign of tension stirred by the morning shooting at Rafah, the two top negotiators called off a joint news conference that was to have followed their talks.
Instead, a lower-level Palestinian negotiator read out to reporters the text of their agreement and answered no questions.
Palestinian militant groups quickly rejected the statement which includes provisions for ending the violence and lifting a crippling Israeli siege on Palestinian territories and said they would continue attacks on the Jewish state. Many Israelis voiced skepticism about the cease-fire's chances of holding up.
"The United States calls on both sides to seize the moment and exercise maximum efforts to follow up these positive developments with immediate concrete actions," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
He said President Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell would "remain engaged to help make that happen."
Israelis and Palestinians have reached several cease-fire agreements during more than a year of heavy fighting in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but none has lasted more than a few weeks.
In yesterday's meeting, the sides merely restated their commitment to agreements they already accepted a security memorandum brokered by CIA chief George J. Tenet in June and a broader report issued by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell in May that suggests a way back to their long-defunct peace process.
But with Washington leaning heavily on both sides since the attacks in the United States, Israelis and Palestinians now have more incentive to make it work.
Mr. Bush has already asked for backing from Arab and Muslim countries in what will probably be a war against exiled Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden and other Islamic militants.
Some Middle East leaders have complained that Israeli-Palestinian fighting and Washington's support of Israel complicate American coalition-building with the Arabs.
Under the agreement, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will order troops tomorrow to begin pulling out of Palestinian-controlled areas seized during the past year, and Palestinian police will make sure gunmen stop shooting at Israelis, officials said.
"The two sides will resume full security cooperation and exert maximum efforts to sustain the declared ceasefire," said the joint statement, read by Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat.
"In accordance with the parties' commitments, they will carry out all their security obligations emanating from previous agreements, and the government of Israel will begin to lift closures and redeploy its forces," it said.
Wording of the statement had been agreed on in advance meetings between lower-level officials.
After several weeks of quiet, the two sides would begin political concessions spelled out in the Mitchell report, including an Israeli settlement freeze in the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel has kept the West Bank and Gaza sealed off during much of the past year and has also restricted Palestinian movement inside these areas, choking commerce and seriously disrupting daily life for many Palestinians.
But while many Israelis acknowledge the severity of the measures, they say they're aimed at preventing suicide bombers and other militants from entering the country. Palestinians have killed scores of Israelis in suicide attacks in restaurants and other public places.
Israeli officials said easing of the closure in the aftermath of yesterday's meeting would only go forward if the violence ceases.
"We will go back to our previous posture if Israelis are getting killed," said one government aide who refused to be named.
Mr. Sharon, who prevented Mr. Peres from meeting Mr. Arafat during the past month, insists that any violence in the coming weeks would derail the process of getting Israelis and Palestinians back to peace talks.
But some Israeli officials, including Mr. Peres himself, say that formula gives extremist groups virtual veto power over any agreement.
One such group, the Islamic Hamas, said after yesterday's talks that its men would continue targeting Israelis in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel.
"There is no change to Hamas policy regarding resisting the occupation or acts of martyrdom," Ismail Abu Shanab, a leading Hamas figure, told Reuters.
Hamas was believed to be behind the bombing yesterday morning of an Israeli military base on the border between Gaza and Egypt.
That attack sparked clashes in Rafah, less than two miles from the airport at Dahaniya, where Mr. Peres and Mr. Arafat met.
Palestinians placed a large bomb in a tunnel underneath the base. When it exploded at 3 a.m. yesterday, at least one wall collapsed, wounding three soldiers.
Israel responded with fire and the gunfight persisted through the morning.
Reporters at Dahaniya could see Israeli tanks in the distance and hear the occasional blast of a shell. At one point during the 21/2-hour meeting, word reached Mr. Arafat that Israeli soldiers had killed a 16-year-old in the clashes.
Palestinian officials said the news hampered the talks, which ran an hour longer than expected.
Nearly 600 Palestinians and 170 Israelis have been killed in Israeli-Palestinian fighting that erupted a year ago this week.
Mr. Arafat and Mr. Peres agreed that top security officials would resume regular meetings beginning tomorrow, accompanied by CIA officials.
They also agreed to hold their own talks next week.

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