Palestinian tries to bomb settlement supermarket; Sharon, Arafat speak of truce

Friday, February 22nd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

JERUSALEM (AP) _ A Palestinian tried to set off a bomb in a Jewish settlement supermarket in the West Bank on Friday, wounding a woman before being shot and killed by a shopper, a witness and police said, casting a shadow over attempts to ease Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

The attacker entered a supermarket in the West Bank settlement of Efrat and tried to set off an explosive, said store manager Eli Shiran. He said a shopper shot and killed him.

The attack came just hours after Israeli and Palestinian security chiefs had their first meeting in several weeks. Early Friday, Israeli forces pulled out of positions they had seized in the Gaza Strip _ a first sign of a possible easing of tensions after a week of surging violence.

There was an agreement on steps toward a cease-fire at the security meeting, the Israeli military said, and Israeli troops withdrew from Palestinian territory across from the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom in Gaza.

Israel Radio said Palestinian security chiefs Jibril Rajoub and Mohammed Dahlan met with Israeli Shin Bet security director Avi Dichter and army Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland late Thursday at the Erez crossing point between Gaza and Israel.

After the supermarket attack, Palestinians said the Israeli military closed off Bethlehem. The military said the blockade was temporary.

Police said the attacker was wearing a belt strapped with explosives, but they did not explode. They said there was apparently a small blast from a detonator, but the bomb failed.

Relatives identified the attacker as Mohammed Tawfiq Shamali, 24, from the village of Douha, next to Bethlehem. They said he had a permit to enter Efrat, where he worked. There was no immediate claim of responsibility from a Palestinian group.

Israeli Foreign Ministry official Arie Mekel blamed the latest violence on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He said it was an ``absurd situation in which Arafat continues to make speeches about how committed he is to peace, and his terrorists continue to try and kill Israelis.''

Arafat told reporters on Thursday that he is committed to the cease-fire he ordered, referring to ``the initiative that I began on December 16 to make the cease-fire hold.''

In a televised speech, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told his people, ``I will do everything in my power to bring an end to violence and terrorism and achieve a cease-fire.''

Sharon also said his government would begin building buffers between Israel and the West Bank ``to provide security for Israeli citizens, wherever they live.''

Scattered incidents of violence were reported overnight. In the West Bank city of Hebron, a Palestinian was killed by Israeli army gunfire late Thursday while buying food, Palestinians said. The Israeli military said there was an exchange of fire near one of the Jewish enclaves in the divided city.

In nearly 17 months of violence, 990 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 282 people on the Israeli side.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, ``We are deeply concerned about the ongoing violence between Israel and the Palestinians.''

He said the Palestinian Authority must take ``immediate and decisive action'' to stop terror attacks, but also criticized Israel, saying that reprisal killings of Palestinian civilians ``do not contribute to calming the situation or to improving security for Israelis.''

Also Thursday, Palestinian security in Nablus arrested three militants wanted in the Oct. 17 assassination of Israeli Cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi, a key Israeli condition for ending the siege. That raised the possibility that Arafat might be released from his Ramallah compound, which is surrounded by Israeli tanks.

Sharon noted that the Israeli Cabinet had insisted that others be arrested, and all must be extradited to Israel, but said he would bring the issue back to the Cabinet for a decision.

Arafat said Israel had no right to determine where they would be tried. He pledged that the suspects ``will be put on trial in our courts in our territories.''

After attending Muslim prayer services Friday morning, Arafat said his people would stand firm in the face of Israel's ``dangerous and very fierce attacks.'' He said, ``This is our land and we will pray there.''