The Associated Press
JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak acknowledged yesterday that Israel has never used such heavy force against the Palestinians, but he said he was still looking for a diplomatic solution to end two months of bloodshed and return to peace talks.
Barak faced security problems on a second front yesterday when Hezbollah guerrillas detonated a roadside bomb, injuring several Israeli soldiers in a disputed area near the Lebanese border, according to Israeli media reports.
Amid the latest violence, the prime minister renewed his call for Israeli political parties to unite under a national emergency government during this period of instability.
The opposition plans to introduce a bill in parliament this week calling for early elections. Barak warned that any move toward new elections would be an act of "national irresponsibility."
A general before becoming a politician, Barak pointed to his years in the army and assured Israelis that he knew how to handle the conflict that has left more than 270 people dead, most of them Palestinians.
"Never has an Israeli government used such great force against the Palestinians - (including) rockets, tanks, and returning fire when needed," Barak said in an interview with Israel radio.
Meanwhile, Barak said he was forging ahead with diplomatic efforts to salvage seven years of peacemaking with the Palestinians. Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami was scheduled to travel today to Russia for talks on the crisis.
"There is great suffering on the Palestinian side and there is great suffering also on our side," Ben-Ami said on Israel radio. "It is vital like never before for the state of Israel to create the conditions to bring not just calm ... but a peace arrangement."
Elsewhere, Israeli cabinet minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak held a secret meeting Saturday night in the Gaza Strip with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Arafat's spokesman Marwan Kanafani described the meeting as "very important" but would not give any further details.
Barak yesterday dispatched security adviser Danny Yatom to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo in a bid to halt a deterioration in relations. Egypt recalled its ambassador to Israel last week, part of an Egyptian protest against Israel's role in the violence with the Palestinians.
The Cairo meeting comes a day after Israeli soldiers shot and killed four Palestinians and wounded more than 30 in a series of clashes that undermined efforts to renew Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation.
Barak and Arafat spoke by telephone Friday and agreed to reopen 10 joint liaison offices which were shut Thursday. However, Israeli troops at a liaison office in the southern Gaza Strip came under fire Saturday and shot back, the Israeli army said. No injuries were reported, but the incident reflected the difficulty in implementing the plan.
Clashes erupted in several volatile Palestinian towns on Saturday afternoon, with three Palestinians shot dead in the West Bank at Jenin, Nablus and Arabeh, and 13-year-old Tayser al-Araj killed in the Gaza Strip at Khan Yunis, hospital doctors said.
The Israeli army said it fired tear gas and rubber bullets, and also used live ammunition in confrontations where soldiers came under gunfire. Three Israelis were injured in shooting attacks or stones in three separate incidents, the army said.