JERICHO, West Bank A U.S. envoy hoped yesterday he could guide Israelis and Palestinians toward a truce after Israel said it would further ease West Bank blockades and the Palestinians continued to arrest suspected militants.
In Washington, meanwhile, a U.S. official raised the possibility that a 50-ton weapons shipment that Israel had intercepted was intended for Hezbollah, Hamas or another extremist group, rather than for the Palestinian Authority, as Israel claimed.
Israel’s army chief announced the seizure Friday but did not present evidence for his claim that the Palestinian Authority was behind the smuggling attempt. The Palestinian Authority denied any links to the shipment, which included Iranian-made rockets and anti-tank missiles.
The U.S. envoy, Anthony Zinni, met yesterday with Palestinian negotiators and said he would chair a meeting today of Israeli and Palestinian security officials. Gen. Zinni is pushing both sides to implement a truce plan drafted last year by CIA chief George Tenet.
Under the plan, Israel is to lift its sweeping travel bans on Palestinians and pull back troops to positions they held before fighting erupted in September 2000. The Palestinians are required to go after suspected militants and prevent attacks on Israelis.
Israel eased restrictions before Gen. Zinni’s arrival in the region Thursday, pulling back tanks from some Palestinian areas and opening some roads in the West Bank. “The moves to ease the situation of the Palestinian population will continue,” Israeli government spokesman Arnon Perlman said yesterday.
In the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Palestinian security officials announced yesterday that they had arrested a leading activist in the militant Islamic Jihad group. The suspect, Fawaz Khlayef, was involved in shooting attacks on Israelis, the officials said.
Gen. Zinni said he believed the two sides were moving in the right direction. “I’m hopeful. I’m encouraged,” he said after meeting with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in the West Bank town of Jericho.
Once a truce is in place, the two sides are to follow a plan by an international commission, headed by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, for returning to peace talks. Israel would have to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza, and the Palestinians would have to dismantle militant groups.