U.S. envoy meets Arafat on Mideast ceasefire

RAMALLAH, West Bank, Reuters

U.S. Middle East envoy William Burns held two rounds of talks with Palestinian leaders on Saturday on a truce that showed signs of unraveling after two Israeli soldiers were killed in a suicide bombing.

The militant Islamic group Hamas, which claimed responsibility for Friday’s attack, pledged to carry out more bombings during a mock funeral for suicide bomber Ismail Bashir al-Massoubi, 27, in the Gaza Strip.

In fresh bloodshed, Israeli soldiers killed a Palestinian early on Saturday as he and two others tried to infiltrate into Israel armed with hand-grenades and a firearm, the army said.

Hamas officials said the dead man, Mohammad Suwadan, was a member of the group and was on a mission to “kill Israelis”.

Seven Palestinians and six Israelis have now been killed since the ceasefire, brokered by U.S. CIA director George Tenet, took effect 10 days ago.

In all, nearly 600 people have died since Palestinians erupted in revolt against Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip last September after peace talks stalled.

At the symbolic funeral for al-Massoubi, 10 Hamas activists clad in white shrouds with fake bombs tied to their waists vowed before 7,000 mourners to become suicide bombers in their turn.

“Our fight will continue, we will not put down our weapons,” chanted the crowd. Some fired their AK-47 rifles into the air.

In the southern Gaza Strip, dozens of families sifted through the rubble of homes destroyed by armored Israeli bulldozers in a pre-dawn raid near the border with Egypt and the Jewish settlement of Netzarim.

At least 18 homes were destroyed and 19 families made homeless in the raid which the Israeli army said it carried out for “security reasons” after a spate of grenade attacks against Israeli soldiers in recent days.

Burns had talks with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in Ramallah, his West bank headquarters, lasting about 90 minutes.

Later he began a second session attended by Ahmed Korei, a senior negotiator and speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo and another senior negotiator, Saeb Erekat.

The two sides exchanged proposals on mechanisms for turning the truce into a peace process ahead of a visit to the region by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, due here on Thursday.

After meeting Arafat, Burns told reporters: “It is obvious there can be no military solution to this problem.

“It’s only through a political process that security can be re-established and also a return to a normal life for Palestinians living under very difficult circumstances.

“I also stressed the importance that the American administration attaches to both sides fulfilling their obligations under the security work plan put together by George Tenet, again as a means of ensuring the security and returning to normal life both peoples deserve,” Burns said.

Standing alongside the U.S. envoy, Erekat told reporters: “President Arafat reiterated to Mr Burns our full commitment to carrying out our obligations under the Tenet understandings.

“We asked the U.S. through Mr Burns to help us face the difficulties our people are facing on the ground from the settlers’ violence, the army, the siege and we urge the U.S. to do something to protect the Palestinian people,” Erekat added.

Burns came to Ramallah a day after holding talks in Jerusalem with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

Powell’s trip next week is another step by the world community to shore up a ceasefire battered by a spate of killings, shootings and violent confrontations. Each side accuses the other of massive and systematic truce violations.