Mideast truce tested by resumed violence as 3 Palestinians die

RAMALLAH, West Bank, Reuters

Israel and the Palestinians were expected to reply to CIA chief George Tenet’s blueprint for a lasting truce on Sunday after Israeli tank fire killed three Palestinian women and drew U.S. criticism.

The European Union raised its profile in the U.S.-led drive to end eight months of confrontations, holding top-level talks with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson, whose country currently holds the EU presidency, said after meeting Arafat in Ramallah he hoped the killing of the women on Saturday in the Gaza Strip would not destroy the truce.

“Everyone stands behind the cease-fire. It is extremely important to stick to the cease-fire, it is extremely important to implement the Mitchell report,” he said, citing a report by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell’s inquiry into the violence.

The women’s deaths, after a Palestinian attack on a Jewish settlement, were the first fatalities since Arafat — under threat of Israeli retaliation for a suicide bombing that killed 21 people in Tel Aviv on June 1 — promised a cease-fire.

U.S. Middle East envoy William Burns, who has been holding talks on a timetable for putting into effect the recommendations of the Mitchell committee, issued a statement criticizing Israel and the Palestinians over the killing of the two women.

“We deeply regret the death of three Palestinian women in Gaza… and offer our condolences to the families,” Burns said in a statement.

“We believe that the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) should ensure that the response to any gunfire emanating from Palestinian populated areas minimizes the danger to the lives and property of Palestinian civilians,” the statement said.

“At the same time, the continued shooting attacks and other violence that have resulted in several Israeli casualties over the past several days must stop,” it said.

On Sunday Israeli newspapers reported details of Tenet’s proposal for a full cease-fire, the first step towards renewing peace negotiations under the Mitchell initiative.

According to the papers, Tenet called for Israel not to hit Palestinian targets, to pull troops back to positions held before the uprising began and to prevent revenge attacks against Palestinians and damage to their property.

The CIA chief’s plan called for the Palestinian Authority to arrest Islamic Jihad and Hamas militants, halt incitement and destroy mortar ammunition stockpiles, they reports said.

In addition, the plan called on Palestinians to thwart attacks against Israelis from Palestinian-ruled territory and prevent those carrying out attacks elsewhere from taking sanctuary in Palestinian Authority areas.