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Tuesday October 10, 2000

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Diplomacy expands in Mideast crisis

By The Associated Press

JERUSALEM - World leaders scrambled yesterday to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to keep the peace process alive, but each man held fast to his imperative: the other side needs to stop firing first.

The region was largely quiet as night fell, with the sporadic clashes that erupted in several towns this weekend having died down. In the centers of power, though, diplomatic brinkmanship continued: Barak convened an emergency Cabinet meeting to assess whether Arafat had met the Israeli ultimatum to cease attacks by last night, and Israeli commanders said they were ready to strike if not.

"We will not let Palestinians kill another Israeli," said Col. Gal Hirsch, a commander in the Ramallah region of the West Bank.

Hirsch said his troops had held their fire for two days - despite provocations - to allow Arafat time to rein in his gunmen. "We are very serious, we hope they will not test us tonight. Our response will be very severe."

A top Arafat aide said the Palestinians did not fear Israel's greater firepower.

"We are not ready to bow to the Israeli threats and their blackmail," said Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian negotiator. He said that asking for a "cease-fire" was inappropriate when most Palestinians were throwing stones, not shooting guns: "He should have asked for a ceasing of stones, not fire."

The 24 hours prior to Barak's yesterday night deadline were among the quietest since the eruption of violence on Sept. 28, but Barak's aides refused to assess whether that was enough to declare an end to the hostilities.

Arafat continued to insist that Barak agree to let an international committee investigate the 12 days of violence, which have claimed 88 lives so far, most Palestinian. The U.N. Security Council voted to recommend an "objective inquiry" last week. Barak has steadfastly refused.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan arrived in the region yesterday evening and met briefly with acting Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami before continuing to Gaza to meet with Arafat. "The action must shift from the street to the bargaining table," Annan told Ben-Ami.

Annan was not the only world leader trying hard to get Arafat and Barak to talk. President Clinton was in regular phone contact with the leaders, and Arafat had just returned from a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Shaath said Arafat had also taken calls from French, Italian, Turkish and Spanish leaders yesterday.

U.S. officials still held out the hope the leaders would come together for a summit.

"Once the parties stop the violence, we'll evaluate how to shift the focus to get back to the peace process to lessen the underlying tension that fuels this violence," said P.J. Crowley, Clinton's national security spokesman.

But both sides said the guns must fall silent before they would meet.

"We heard about contacts to put together some kind of regional summit. We believe that such a gathering can take place only if we come to it after violence is stopped," Ben-Ami said.

Shaath was equally as adamant.

"There are things that Israel should do ... the Israeli withdrawal from the entrances of our cities, and accepting the establishment of an international inquiry into the incidents," he said. "And after that, we can go to the negotiations on a clear basis."

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was also in the region, but his mission was especially focused on stopping the violence from spreading: a militant Islamic Lebanese guerrilla group had captured three Israeli soldiers on Saturday, an act that the guerrillas dedicated to the Palestinians. Barak threatened to respond "with force" and said he put responsibility for the capture on Lebanon and Syria, the main power there.

"The priority now is to stop the escalation, refrain from using force and resume the dialogue," Ivanov said after meeting with Lebanese leaders.

Fighting was sporadic Sunday and yesterday, which coincided with Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. There were brief gun battles in the West Bank towns of Ramallah and Nablus, and settlers reported gunfire aimed at their vehicles as they headed home from Yom Kippur visits.

In Nazareth, the town of Jesus' boyhood, Arab and Jewish youths threw stones at each other Sunday night and police used tear gas and rubber bullets to break up the riots. Two Arab youths died, apparently from rubber bullet wounds.

They were buried together in Nazareth yesterday afternoon, borne by hundreds of mourners shouting, "With our blood and souls, we will redeem you, martyrs!" Arab leaders in the city called for a general strike yesterday accompanied by three days of mourning.

Anger among Israel's Arab minority continued yesterday night, and police closed roads in the north because of rioting in some cities. In Jerusalem, hundreds of Jewish youths took to the streets to stone vehicles driven by Arabs.

In the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, no deaths were reported yesterday. The bodies of two Palestinians who had died Sunday were found: one shot to death near Nablus, and another man who doctors said had been beaten to death near Ramallah. The Israeli army insisted the second man was the victim of a car accident.

Elsewhere, Israeli police said an American-born Jewish settler found dead in the West Bank apparently had been on his way to a Jewish shrine being ransacked by Palestinians when he was killed by Palestinian militants. The man, Hillel Lieberman, was discovered Sunday in a cave about six miles from Joseph's Tomb, an Israeli army outpost and Jewish seminary in Nablus.