Arafat calls Sharon amid new violence


Battles flared in the West Bank on Friday and a Palestinian Islamic group promised to set off more bombs in Israel, underlining the challenges facing the Jewish state’s tough new leader Ariel Sharon.

Sharon told Palestinian President Yasser Arafat that violence must stop before peace talks can resume.

At least 383 people, most of them Palestinians, have been killed in unrest that erupted in September amid deadlock in efforts to end the 52-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Firefights between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen broke out after demonstrations in the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Hebron, witnesses and the Israeli army said.

Palestinian hospital sources said at least 10 people had been wounded by rubber-coated metal bullets during a protest on the edge of Ramallah that later turned into a heavy battle.

A Reuters photographer at the scene said a Belgian colleague had been shot in the leg during the clash.

In the Gaza Strip, a leader of the militant Palestinian Islamic Jihad group vowed to pursue a bombing campaign to create what he called a “balance of terror” with Israel.

“The choice of holy war will never stop,” Abdallah al-Shami told about 2,000 supporters at a rally to mark last week’s killing by Israeli troops of would-be bomber Shadi Kahlout.

“We confirm that the bombing missions will continue to create a balance of terror,” Shami said. “So, be ready, Sharon.”

A car bomb exploded in Jerusalem on Thursday, two days after Sharon won a landslide election victory on a pledge to halt violence and take a harder line in any future peace talks.

Witnesses said about 200 flag-waving Jewish settlers staged a protest at Gush Etzion near the West Bank town of Bethlehem against last week’s killing of a settler by Palestinian gunmen.

A source in Sharon’s office said Arafat had telephoned the Likud party chief for their first talk since the election. “Arafat told Sharon the Palestinians want peace and are interested in resuming peace negotiations,” the source said.

He quoted Sharon as saying he also wanted to find a way to talk peace and help innocent civilians. “The condition for it is a complete halt to violence,” the prime minister-elect said.

There was no immediate confirmation from Palestinian officials on the contents of Arafat’s conversation with Sharon.

Sharon, trying to forge a broad-based coalition with the Labour party, met Barak on Friday for talks that a Likud party spokesman had said would cover “coalition issues.” But a statement from Barak’s office after the two-hour meeting mentioned only a “diplomatic and security update” as well as talks on the transfer of power.

Leaders of Barak’s Labour party said they wanted Sharon to explain how he would make peace with the Palestinians.