Mideast cease-fire in fragile state

The Associated Press
Wednesday June 06, 2001

JERUSALEM — Hamas cast doubt Tuesday on how long a fragile cease-fire can last when its spiritual leader said the militant group is not bound by Yasser Arafat’s call to end attacks on Israel. 

International pressure to keep the truce on track was growing, with CIA Director George Tenet expected to head to the region on Wednesday to promote Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation. 

Meanwhile, Israel announced the easing of some restrictions imposed after a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in Tel Aviv Friday, killing himself and 20 other people, most of them Israeli teen-agers. 

The Israeli Defense Ministry said that borders would be opened to allow Palestinians to return home from Egypt and Jordan, raw materials would be allowed into and out of the Palestinian territories and Palestinian workers could return to their jobs in an industrial zone next to the Erez crossing point between Israel and the Gaza Strip. 

Scattered gunfire and clashes Tuesday injured several people in the West Bank, but marches marking the 34th anniversary of the 1967 Middle East war, when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip, were generally peaceful. 

However, late Tuesday, a five-month-old Israeli baby was seriously injured when Palestinians threw rocks at a car in the West Bank. Doctors said the baby had a serious head injury. 

Israeli officials acknowledged the relative calm, but said Israel still wants Arafat to arrest those involved in planning suicide bombings and to put an end to anti-Israel incitement. 

“No doubt some positive steps have been taken, but I would say, necessary but insufficient,” said Raanan Gissin, an aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. 

Arafat called the cease-fire on Saturday, leading Israel to hold off retaliation for Friday night’s suicide bombing outside a Tel Aviv disco that killed 21 people, including the bomber. 

A joint statement issued late Monday in the name of the militant wing of Hamas and Arafat’s Fatah group said the cease-fire would be respected. But leaders of Hamas – whose support is seen as vital to a successful truce – quickly began disputing the idea. 

“When we are talking about the so-called cease-fire, this means between two armies,” Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’ spiritual leader, told The Associated Press. “We are not an army. We are people who defend themselves and work against the aggression.” 

Yassin joined 2,000 Palestinians marching peacefully in Gaza to mark the anniversary of the 1967 war. 

Demonstrators chanted, “The intefadeh will continue until victory,” using the Arabic word for uprising. A march in the West Bank town of Ramallah also was orderly. 

A Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar, would not directly say if further bombings were planned. But, he said, “our strategy and our tactic is to continue resistance, the intefadeh, by all means and everywhere.” 

“The people,” he added, “are convinced that this will be an effective measure to persuade the Israelis to leave.” Hamas does not accept the existence of a Jewish state. 

Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian political analyst who attended a meeting with representatives of Hamas and Fatah, said participants “spoke in a way that expressed understanding of the circumstances that led Arafat to make the declaration.” 

Islamic Jihad, a militant group that did not attend the meeting, indicated it would give the cease-fire a chance. 

“We are respecting all the decisions taken by any Palestinian movement,” Islamic Jihad spokesman Nafez Azam said. 

West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti said the cease-fire applies only to areas under full Palestinian control. Elsewhere, he said, “resisting occupation is a legitimate right of the Palestinians.” 

The Palestinians long have held they are responsible for security only in areas they control, in part to press Israel to hand over more land. Israel rejects the idea, especially when attackers come into Israeli-controlled areas from places under Palestinian control. 

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer was in Egypt and Jordan seeking help to stabilize the cease-fire that followed his personal appeal to Arafat. 

Meanwhile, clashes continued despite the truce. 

North of Ramallah, Israeli soldiers opened fire Tuesday with rubber-coated steel bullets on Palestinian stone-throwers, Palestinian witnesses said. Ten Palestinians were injured. The army said it fired on 600 demonstrators to disperse them. 

In and near Hebron, at least three Palestinians, including a police officer, were wounded in clashes with Israeli forces. 

Also in the West Bank, Ashraf Mahmoud Bardawil, 27, a Fatah activist in the Tulkarem area, was critically injured in an explosion in his car. The cause of the blast wasn’t clear.