Violence Erupts In Nablus

REUTERS

September 16, 2004

By Wael al-Ahmad

JENIN, West Bank (Reuters) - Raiding Israeli forces have killed six Palestinian militants and four civilians, the highest single-day Palestinian death toll in the West Bank for more than two years, witnesses and medics say.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon added to pessimism about peace prospects, declaring that Israel was not following the U.S.-backed "road map" plan and could stay in the occupied West Bank for a long time after a planned pullout from Gaza in 2005.

Sharon spelled out what various Israeli officials have been suggesting for months. The "road map" was derailed some time ago amid persistent violence and recrimination on both sides.

Israeli forces, sustaining pressure on Palestinian militants in advance of "disengagement" from Gaza and a small wedge of the West Bank next year, killed five militants and an 11-year-old girl bystander during a raid into the West Bank city of Nablus on Wednesday.

Four of the slain gunmen were from the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, part of Pa lestinian President Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction, and the other from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, witnesses said.

Israeli military sources said five "senior terrorists" had been targeted in the pre-dawn operation.

Hours later, Israeli special forces backed up by helicopter gunships killed four Palestinians -- a militant, a policeman and two civilians -- at a car repair shop in the northern city of Jenin, according to local witnesses and medics.

They had earlier said all four dead were militants.

An army spokeswoman said all the Palestinians were armed and they were shot inside a cafe. Two others were arrested.

The two raids killed the most Palestinians in one day since April 2002, at the height of a massive Israeli offensive against militants waging a now four-year-old revolt.

"This is a big crime that cannot be forgiven and is part of Israeli determination to escalate aggression," Arafat said at his Ramallah headquarters where Israeli forces confine him.

Israel has cra nked up efforts to eliminate militants to prevent them proclaiming victory once Sharon carries out his plan to "disengage" from conflict by evacuating more than 8,000 settlers from Gaza and the northern West Bank in 2005.

"ROAD MAP" AT DEAD-END

Many Palestinians suspect unilateral "disengagement" is a cover for cementing Israel's grip on swathes of the West Bank, where most of the 240,000 Jewish settlers live. They believe it will rule out a viable state promised them by the "road map".

But U.S. President George W. Bush has endorsed Sharon's plan in hopes it might revive "road map" peacemaking.

Israeli officials have said the plan launched by Bush in June 2003 has no chance until Palestinian leaders curb militants targeting Israelis and carry out reform. But Sharon's right-wing Likud party also rejects Palestinian statehood in principle.

His remarks in a Jewish new year interview with Yedioth Ahronoth were his clearest yet on the status of the road map, which his cabinet had accepted only under U.S. pressure.

"Even now we are not following the road map," he said.

However, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said he did not think that accounts of Sharon's comments accurately reflected the prime minister's views.

"Prime Minister Sharon has reaffirmed his commitment to moving forward on his bold proposal to move out of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank," McClellan said.

"That is a proposal that can help get us jump-started again on the road map which is the path towards the president's two-state solution," he said. "I think that's what the prime minister was talking about -- moving forward on his disengagement plan."

The road map charts reciprocal steps, including an end to Palestinian violence and halt to Israeli settlement activity, to Palestinian statehood.

"It could very well be that after the (Gaza) evacuation, there will be a very long period in which nothing else will happen," Sharon said. "(For) additional steps, there must be a change in Palestinian strategy and there is not even the tiniest sign pointing to such a change taking place."

Arafat's adviser, Nabil Abu Rdainah, denounced Sharon's comments. "He is exploiting the U.S. government's preoccupation with re-election. It is a dangerous new turn of events that will reflect negatively...on the region as a whole," he told Reuters.