Gun battles diminish chance of peace talks resuming

JERUSALEM — Repeated flare-ups of violence this week are threatening efforts to bring an end to more than two months of clashes.

While Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said Wednesday that the Palestinian leadership has been making greater efforts to calm the level of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he and other Israeli officials said there is still a long way to go.

This was particularly evident to the residents of Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood, who came under fire Monday night from the neighboring Arab town of Beit Jala. After Palestinian gunmen shot at Gilo, Israeli troops returned fire.

Battles also erupted Monday night near the West Bank cities of Jenin and Hebron.

In other violence that day, three Israeli motorists were wounded in West Bank shootings. Two were shot by Palestinian gunmen, and one by Israeli troops who opened fire when the driver did not slow down at a checkpoint. In response to one of the Palestinian shootings, the army uprooted 250 olive trees the gunmen used as cover.

And in a three-hour battle, Palestinian gunmen attacked Rachel's Tomb, a Jewish holy site under Israeli guard at the entrance to the West Bank city of Bethlehem. In response, Israeli helicopter gunships targeted a Palestinian position near a refugee camp, from which heavy fire had been directed at Israeli troops at the tomb.

Israel Defense Force officials said the Palestinians, who launched a coordinated attack on the shrine from three directions, were trying to take over the tomb, considered the burial site of the biblical matriarch.

Israeli control of the site is guaranteed by various agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but since the recent violence began, Palestinian officials have demanded that Israel evacuate the site. Israel has refused.

Palestinian officials said the fighting broke out after soldiers and Jewish settlers attacked Muslim worshipers in the nearby village of Hussan, wounding at least 25 people. The IDF denied the charge.

Also Monday, a member of the fundamentalist Hamas group whom the Palestinian Authority recently freed from jail blew himself up in Gaza, apparently in an attempt to bomb a nearby Jewish settlement.

Monday's clashes prompted Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to repeat his call for an international peacekeeping force to be sent to the region.

In other violence that day, an Israeli was lightly wounded in a shooting attack near the Jewish city of Ariel in the West Bank. There were several other shooting incidents, but no reports of Israeli or Palestinian fatalities.

This week Israel said it would cooperate with a U.S.-led fact-finding panel probing the causes of the violence. To date, nearly 300 Palestinians and 35 Israelis have died since the unrest began over two months ago.

During a telephone call last Friday, Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Bill Clinton discussed the panel, whose members are due to arrive in the Middle East later this month.

On Sunday, Barak said there is no new U.S. plan to end the violence and revive peace talks.