Fragile Hope for Peace Talks

Israeli troops shot dead six Palestinians today, but the latest spasm of Middle East violence failed to dim hopes that the ancient rivals were on track to revive stalled peace talks.

Speaking after the highest-level Israeli-Palestinian talks in weeks, the U.S. State Department said negotiators from both sides could meet as early as next week, possibly in Washington.

The six Palestinians were killed in four separate shootings in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in fresh violence that erupted hours after Palestinian President Easier Abaft and Israeli Foreign Minister Shalom Ben-Ami wrapped up late-night talks on ending the fighting and renewing stalled peacemaking. Ben-Ami said he and Arafat did not conduct negotiations in the four-hour meeting but rather put out feelers on restarting negotiations deadlocked after the U.S.-brokered Camp David peace summit ended in disagreement in July.

A Palestinian uprising erupted Sept. 29, in the vacuum of the stalled negotiations. At least 325 people, most of them Palestinians and 38 Israelis have been killed.

“The attempt last night was an attempt to check whether along with the fight against violence, it is possible to move to the diplomatic process,” Ben-Ami told Israel Television. “We are in the midst of a violent struggle with the Palestinian Authority where we can’t and don’t want to turn it into a regional conflict. This is not in Israel’s interests.”

Palestinian officials said more talks would be held in the next few days “to find out whether there is seriousness on both sides to reopen the negotiations.”

“After that meeting, if they decide to formally resume the talks, they will move to Washington,” one official said.

But the Palestinian Authority played down prospects of a breakthrough saying in a statement after its weekly meeting that while Israel raised hopes of renewing peace talks, it continued “aggression and military escalation” against the Palestinian people.”

French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, who met Arafat Thursday and Barak Friday, said he and European Union envoy Miguel Angel Moratinos saw signs of hope. “Mr. Moratinos and I have the sense that something has begun to move again on the political level, the diplomatic level or the substantive level. Things are slowly becoming possible again,” Vedrine told reporters in Tel Aviv.

In Gaza, leaders of the militant Islamic organization Hamas pledged to resist any return to peace talks. Today Hamas officials led a rally where crowds cheered as a sheep decorated with a photograph of Barak was slaughtered.

As has often been the pattern since the start of the Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, violence followed talks. Arafat’s Fatah faction accused Israeli soldiers of shooting dead three Fatah activists in what they said was the latest in a series of assassinations over the past week.

The army said its troops were not involved in the killing, but it released a statement saying Israel’s security forces “had been working day and night” to prevent “terrorist attacks.” It said soldiers killed a Palestinian who tried to stab an Israeli worker at an industrial zone on the Israel-Gaza border, adding that soldiers found a bomb strapped to his body.

Palestinian police said Israeli soldiers shot dead a policeman at a Palestinian checkpoint near the West Bank city of Ramallah, but the army said it knew of no such incident. Palestinian sources said Israeli troops shot dead a 17-year-old stone-thrower near Nablus. Palestinian gunmen opened fire at two Israeli vehicles near Ramallah, the army said. There were no reports of casualties.

Gun battles between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen raged near Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, near Ramallah and in the heart of the divided town of Hebron in the West Bank. Three Palestinians were wounded from shrapnel in Rafah. Israeli forces fired rubber-coated bullets and stun grenades at a crowd of Palestinians pelting them with stones and fire crackers as they emerged from Muslim prayers at the Jerusalem shrine at the center of the conflict.

Clinton hopes to conclude the elusive peace agreement before he leaves office next month. Palestinian officials said Arafat had come under pressure from the United States, Europe, and some Arab states to try to reach a deal with Barak before special Israeli prime ministerial elections expected in February. Barak resigned last Sunday under pressure over the Palestinian uprising but is seeking reelection and a new peacemaking mandate. Political analysts say a peace deal would help his chances of re-election.

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