Monday, 22 January 2001

Hope is dim at Mideast peace talks

Violence persists with arrest of Palestinian woman accused of luring youth to his death

The Globe and Mail,
Monday, January 22, 2001

By Matthew Kalman

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak shrugged off widespread criticism last night over his decision to accept a Palestinian invitation to 10 days of intensive peace talks before next month's prime ministerial election.

"By staying away from the talks in Taba, we would be serving the interests of the Palestinians and I have no intention of doing that," Mr. Barak said. "It is our duty to continue to test the possibility of reaching an agreement or understandings that would first and foremost reduce the level of violence."

As Israeli and Palestinian negotiators gathered for the talks in the Egyptian resort of Taba, neither side was optimistic amid positions that appear to be hardening and continued violence that has killed more than 380 people, most of them Palestinians. Yesterday, a Palestinian youth was shot dead during riots in Gaza and what appeared to be a car bomb in preparation exploded prematurely in East Jerusalem.

But Ariel Sharon, the right-wing challenger who has led Mr. Barak by as much as 20 points in recent opinion polls, accused the Prime Minister of electioneering.

"There is no doubt that the renewal of talks tonight is an attempted grab for electoral purposes by a government that does not exist," Mr. Sharon said.

Meanwhile, even senior members of Mr. Barak's own government challenged the legitimacy of conducting negotiations in the shadow of the Feb. 6 election.

"If you're so convinced we're going to win, then why not arrange to meet the Palestinians on Feb. 7 in the evening?" cabinet minister Haim Ramon jeered.

The negotiating teams faced each other in a Taba hotel room to discuss procedural issues.

"We were hard-working," Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami told journalists after the session adjourned 2½ hours later. The talks were due to resume this morning.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who met with Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem in Gaza, was also upbeat, saying he hopes the talks produce an agreement "as soon as possible."

But the Israeli cabinet formally resolved to three basic principles yesterday: No Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount holy site (known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary), no right for Palestinian refugees to return to Israel and support for the 180,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

These "red lines," as Mr. Barak called them, were rejected by other Palestinian leaders.

"These are very difficult conditions, which we cannot accept," Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath said. "If this is Barak's starting point, the talks are doomed to failure."

Mr. Shaath said his side will not be pressured by the looming Israeli election.

"We're not going to make an agreement just because time is running out," he said. "Under this terror of time, you cannot reach an agreement that can last."

Meanwhile, real terror continued to grip the Israeli public after the slaying of Ofir Rahum, a 16-year-old schoolboy whose bullet-riddled body was discovered last week on the outskirts of the Palestinian town of Ramallah.

He disappeared after withdrawing a large amount of cash from the bank and skipping school to meet a mystery woman in Jerusalem, 80 kilometres away, after meeting her in an Internet chat room.

Amneh Muna, a 23-year-old Palestinian journalist and political activist, was arrested in the early hours Saturday at her home in the West Bank village of Bir Naballah, just north of Jerusalem.

She was interrogated yesterday by Israel's Shin Bet security service at a compound in Jerusalem. Shin Bet prevented her from talking to anybody, including her family-appointed lawyer, and secured a court order prohibiting publication of her picture.

In an interview at the family home, hours after her arrest, Ms. Muna's brother, Tariq, denied that she was involved in the killing and described how 50 masked Israeli troops surrounded the house to arrest her.

Mr. Muna, 30, said his parents, brother and two sisters were called from their home in the dead of night, one by one, then asked to watch as dozens of soldiers searched the house.

"They took away hundreds of documents and newspapers and every photograph we have of my sister, including family albums," Mr. Muna said.

"They also took her identity card, credit cards and about $2,000 cash in U.S. dollars and Israeli shekels. They also took all the family's mobile phones. They were searching for about two hours."

He said the first the family heard about the connection to the killing "was on the TV news. It's just not true. She's not that kind of person."

The slain youth's father said yesterday that the family is concerned about other young people entering what he called the "black hole" of the Internet.

"I don't want revenge," Shalom Rahum said. "I just want all the children, everyone who goes into these chat rooms, to be careful. I hope my son will be the last victim and other young people will learn the consequences."

No comments: