Hezbollah abduction adds new tensions to conflict

Monday, October 16th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Demonstrators urge Arafat to boycott meeting

By Gregory Katz / The Dallas Morning News

SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt – There were fresh setbacks to peace hopes Sunday even as Middle East leaders and President Bill Clinton headed to this resort town on the edge of the Red Sea for a summit meeting intended to restore calm in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The latest trouble came from the radical Muslim group Hezbollah, which reported in a news conference Sunday that it had abducted an Israeli army reservist, bringing to four the number of Israeli soldiers seized by the group in the last nine days.

The action raised the possibility that Israel would launch a counterattack against Lebanon and Syria for allowing Hezbollah to operate there with impunity. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has tried in vain to win the release of the soldiers to avoid further escalation.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak on Sunday confirmed the abduction, which happened in Europe, and hinted that Israel might strike back.

"Israel will know how to respond and how to identify who stands behind this matter," he said. "We will act to return this man as soon as possible."

And demonstrations against the Sharm El-Sheik summit continued throughout the Arab world as Muslims urged Palestinian President Yasser Arafat to boycott the meeting with the Israeli prime minister.

Some aides to Mr. Arafat indicated that he might not attend the summit because of disagreements with the Americans about the agenda.

No one doubts that the atmosphere is radically different from the cordial mood that prevailed when Mr. Clinton met with the two adversaries at Camp David in July. Both sides have withdrawn from the positions offered at that summit – when a historic compromise was within reach – and retreated into acrimony.

Both Mr. Arafat and Mr. Barak have indicated that their constituents are in no mood for compromise, and each has accused the other of breaking the peace process. The distance between the two sides can be summed up by the video coverage of the violence that has gripped the region since Sept. 28.

Palestinian television has been broadcasting, again and again, the heart-rending footage of 12-year-old Mohammed al-Durra being shot dead by Israeli troops during a gunbattle between Israeli forces and Palestinians.

And the Israeli news media have been showing footage of the body of Israeli soldier Vadim Norzhich being dropped from the second floor of a Palestinian police station after he was lynched by an angry mob. The soldier's body was pounced upon by Palestinians who beat the corpse with iron bars.

But it is the comments of their loved ones that reveal the wide breach between the Palestinians and the Israelis that has come out into the open since the violence started.

Over the weekend, the young boy's father, Jamal al-Durra, told reporters that his son had been intentionally targeted by Israeli troops, not killed accidentally as officials have claimed.

"Israelis claim they are against Nazism, but what they are doing against Palestinians is a new Nazism," he said. The comparison to the Third Reich is particularly unpleasant for Israelis, especially those who lost family members during the Holocaust.

And in a eulogy delivered in Israel, Mikhail Norzhich, the brother of the dead soldier, compared the Palestinians to the devil. He said he reached that conclusion after asking hospital officials to show him his brother's mutilated body.

"I saw what they did to him," he said. "Human beings can't do such a thing – only animals can. They are children of the devil, not of God. And you can't make peace with Satan's children."

It is this climate of mutual hatred that Mr. Clinton and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will face on Monday when they try to bring the two sides together in a desperate bid to prevent a full-scale war that could convulse the region.

They will be joined by Mr. Annan, the leader of the United Nations, and by Javier Solana, who will represent the European Union, considered by the Palestinian delegation as more open-minded than the United States.

King Abdullah of Jordan, whose diplomatic ability has been largely untested since he ascended to the throne, will also participate.

There was a general reduction in the level of violence Sunday as both sides appeared to be waiting to see what develops at the summit, which is expected to last one day but may spill over into a second.

The sudden scheduling of the summit has caused chaos in Sharm El-Sheik, where a large number of Italian vacationers were removed from their rooms at the Hyatt Regency to make way for the U.S. government contingent and the news media traveling with Mr. Clinton.

"This stinks," said one man who did not like having his vacation disrupted.