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Mideast Maelstrom

March 14, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: Today was another day of ambulances and stretchers in the Mideast, where 17 months of attacks and reprisals have now killed at least 344 Israelis and 1,063 Palestinians. Among today’s casualties, four Palestinians killed in gun battles, three Israeli soldiers who died when Palestinian militants blew up their tank in the Gaza Strip, and two Palestinians considered informants by Islamic militants who shot them and dragged their bodies through the streets of Bethlehem.

The death toll mounted even as American envoy Anthony Zinni arrived in Jerusalem to try for a third time to bring the two sides to the peace table. His trip comes amid new diplomatic pressure on Israel. Earlier this week, Israel sent more than 150 tanks into Ramallah, the unofficial Palestinian capital in the West Bank. Today, Israel announced a gradual withdrawal from the occupation area, but both the European Union and the Bush Administration have criticized Israeli military actions.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Frankly, it’s not helpful what the Israelis have recently done in order to create conditions for peace. I understand someone trying to defend themselves and to fight terror. But the recent actions aren’t helpful.

SPENCER MICHELS: Before yesterday, the White House primarily had blamed the Palestinians for rising tensions. A new tone also came from Vice President Cheney yesterday. Traveling in Egypt, he said the burden of peace fell to both parties. There’s also been a new push for peace from the United Nations. On Tuesday, the Security Council approved a U.S.- sponsored resolution endorsing an independent Palestinian state as part of the peace process.

SPOKESMAN: The resolution has been adopted.

SPENCER MICHELS: The resolution also endorsed resumed diplomatic ties between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and calls for a complete cessation of the violence. Besides the fighting, the two sides continued the war of words. Palestinians blamed Israelis for the continued bloodshed.

NABIL ABU RDEINEH, Arafat Chief Adviser: They are challenging the American administration, they are challenging the world community, even they are challenging the Security Council and refusing to stop their attacks.

SPENCER MICHELS: Israelis meanwhile said Palestinian leaders have failed to reign in Islamic militants.

ARIE MEKEL, Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman: Israel welcomes the United States’ efforts to include in the Security Council’s resolution a paragraph that calls for the immediate cessation of terror and incitement.

SPENCER MICHELS: General Zinni met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon today. He meets with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat tomorrow.