Mideast violence flares, Clinton sends envoy

Mideast violence flares, Clinton sends envoy

U.S. President Bill Clinton pushed on with his last-ditch effort to resurrect Middle East peace negotiations by sending a diplomatic envoy to the region.

Dennis Ross was due to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat early in the week as part of President Bill Clinton's drive to clinch a deal before he steps down on January 20.

More violence - in which a young Palestinian woman was shot and killed on Sunday - underlined the immense difficulties U.S. mediators face in trying to repair the breach between Israel and the Palestinians after the deaths of more than 350 people in 14 weeks of bloodshed.

At least 302 Palestinians, 43 Israelis and 13 Israeli Arabs have been killed since the start of a Palestinian protests against Israeli occupation in late September.

A senior U.S. official described Clinton's effort to resolve the toughest issues at the heart of half a century of conflict before he leave office as "a difficult undertaking", indicating that the Clinton administration was losing hope.

"At the very least (we) hope to continue to narrow the gaps between the parties," the official said.

In yet another sign of hardening positions, Israelis prepared for a mass rally on Monday to demand that Jerusalem stay under Israeli rule.

The final status of divided Jerusalem, one of the biggest obstacles to a deal, will become the focus for what organisers said would be hundreds of thousands of Israelis encircling the city walls.

Thousands of Israeli police officers and paramilitary units were expected to deploy in the streets ahead of the demonstration scheduled for 1830 (1630 GMT) at Jaffa Gate, one of the main entrances to the walled Old City.

Israel captured East Jerusalem and its holy shrines in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in a move not recognised internationally. Palestinians regard Arab East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

Ross's separate consultations with Barak and Arafat, possibly on Tuesday, was part of a two-pronged U.S. effort to end the violence and put peace talks back on track.

A U.S. official said Ross would be "pressing to get the level of violence down as low as possible and ultimately to eliminate it," while trying "to continue to move them forward toward a peaceful resolution".

CIA head George Tenet was reported to have been preparing the groundwork for fresh peacemaking in talks with Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian security officials at an undisclosed location in Cairo on Sunday night.

A U.S. Central Intelligence Agency official said the spy chief's talks were "related to combating terrorism and violence in the Middle East".

Barak was to consult with an inner cabinet of ministers and advisers connected to peace talks early on Monday to review the talks in Cairo which his office said was focused on "reducing violence and thwarting terrorism".

It was a task Israeli media said was made even more difficult after security officials said that the man who detonated a bomb on a Tel Aviv bus on December 28 had been recruited by Palestinian security officials in the West Bank.

The head of Palestinian military intelligence, Moussa Arafat, dismissed the report as an Israeli fabrication.


In the latest violence in the West Bank, 20-year-old Fatma Abu Jeifh was driving home along a road east of the town of Nablus when she was hit by a bullet fired from a nearby hill manned by Israeli soldiers, her cousin, Nasser Abu Jeifh, said.

The army denied the account and said there was an exchange of fire in the area at the time.

Jeifh was the second young Palestinian woman shot and killed in three days. Israeli troops killed a 19-year-old woman in the divided West Bank town of Hebron on Friday. An 18-year-old woman was wounded in the chest and Palestinian witnesses said both were at home when they were hit.

Jeifh's funeral on Monday was likely to spike tensions even higher as Palestinians mark the plight of refugees with demonstrations across the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

They demand the right in principle of Palestinians refugees and their descendents to return to homes they fled or were forced to flee in the 1948 war in which the Jewish state was established.

A 10-year-old Palestinian boy was fighting for his life in hospital after Israeli troops shot him in the head at a junction where Israeli forces often face Palestinian stone-throwers. The Israeli army said its troops shot a Palestinian man who escaped after he was handcuffed and arrested at a roadblock near Hebron. It alleged the victim was a gunman in Arafat's Fatah organisation.

A spokeswoman said Palestinian gunmen fired at three Israeli buses travelling in various parts of the West Bank on Sunday. There were no casualties.

In Damascus, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rejected Israeli threats against his country and said the struggle to liberate occupied Arab land and establish peace would continue.

"No threats will prevent us from continuing the struggle to liberate the occupied Arab territories and establish a just a durable peace in the region," Assad said at a dinnerhe hosted for visiting Pakistani military ruler General Pervez Musharraf.

Israel had threatened decisive action against Syria and Lebanon if it did not rein in Shi'ite Musleim guerrillas who, in a daring raid in south Lebanon last October, captured three Israeli soldiers.

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