________________________________________________________________________ Confrontation between Israeli, Palestinian troops Copyright ) 1998 Nando.net Copyright ) 1998 The Associated Press KHAN YUNIS, Gaza Strip (January 15, 1998 10:19 a.m. EST http://www.nando.net) -- Israeli and Palestinian troops trained assault rifles on each other Thursday during a protest, a sign of growing tension ahead of a Washington summit on Mideast peacemaking. The confrontation started when about 400 Palestinian demonstrators blocked a main thoroughfare near the Palestinian town of Khan Yunis, leaving several Israeli cars stuck on the road. Dozens of Israeli soldiers, apparently fearing the vehicles would become an easy target for attack, took up positions with their rifles trained on the demonstrators. Palestinian policemen then arrived, aiming their rifles at the Israeli troops. The two sides lowered their weapons after about 20 minutes, but remained at the scene until the demonstrators dispersed. In another confrontation about a mile away, Israeli troops shot at a Palestinian taxi, wounding a passenger in the leg when he opened the door. It was not immediately clear why the soldiers opened fire. Israeli-Palestinian tension has been rising in recent days, days before separate meetings that President Clinton has scheduled with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Next week's talks are seen as critical for the future of Mideast peacemaking; if they fail, violence could result. Arafat has hinted at new clashes, saying that all Palestinian options remained open. Asked Thursday to explain further, Arafat said: "I am worried about the whole region." Israeli security officials believe the Palestinians have hoarded weapons and conducted assault training in preparation for a possible violent conflict with Israel, the Maariv daily reported Thursday. The Israeli army has carried out its own exercises under the code name "Indian Summer," the report said. The Israeli Cabinet hardened its positions on peace talks this week. The ministers said Israel would hand over West Bank land only if the Palestinians meet a 12-page list of demands, most dealing with security. They also decided that in a final peace accord, Israel must retain vast areas of the West Bank -- land the Palestinians want as part of a future state. The Cabinet started Thursday to tackle the core issue of the Clinton-Netanyahu meeting -- the scope of an Israeli troop pullback in the West Bank. The Cabinet may set general parameters, but probably will not decide on the specific size of a withdrawal, said David Bar-Illan, the prime minister's senior adviser. A final decision was not expected until Sunday. Clinton expects Netanyahu to present plans for a significant and speedy troop withdrawal when the two leaders meet Tuesday. Thursday also marked the anniversary of the U.S.-brokered Hebron accord in which Netanyahu pledged to carry out three pullbacks in the West Bank by mid-1998. Israel's first offer in March to hand over 2 percent of the land was rejected by the Palestinians as insufficient. The second pullback is two months overdue. Netanyahu has said he was no longer bound by the withdrawal timetable because the Palestinians have not fulfilled their promise to crack down on militants. Netanyahu has said he was ready to carry out one pullback, not three, before beginning talks on a permanent peace agreement. Maariv reported that Netanyahu planned to propose a single pullback from 9 percent to 12 percent of the West Bank when he meets with Clinton. If the Palestinians insist on an additional withdrawal, each pullback would be smaller in size, Maariv said. Arafat has termed the Israeli positions a violation of the peace accords. Still, it was not clear whether Israel would stick to the 12 pages of conditions, and a senior U.S. diplomat said they should be considered an opening position only. By IBRAHIM BARZAK, Associated Press Writer --- Thursday January 15 9:13 AM EST Arafat says Israel Impeding Washington Talks By Wafa Amr HEBRON, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinian President Yasser Arafat on Thursday accused Israel of blocking progress at peace talks in Washington next week on a long-overdue handover of West Bank land. Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are to separately meet U.S. President Bill Clinton to try to overcome 10 months of stalemate in peacemaking. "They're (Israel) putting all the obstacles before going to Washington while we are looking to achieve something concrete from these meetings in Washington," Arafat told reporters in English at a joint news conference with British Foreign Office Minister Derek Fatchett. "It (the Washington meeting) is a turning point not only for the Palestinians and Israelis but for the whole region as well," said the Palestinian leader who wants the United States to pressure Israel to hand over more land. Palestinians are angry at an Israeli cabinet decision this week that identified large segments of West Bank land as "vital national interests," suggesting they could not be ceded to Palestinians. The United States criticised the cabinet decision. On Tuesday, the cabinet decided not to make any withdrawal until Arafat's PLO meets a 12-page Israeli list of demands on carrying out security and other commitments agreed on in a U.S.-brokered document a year ago. Fatchett, whose country is currently head of the European Union's rotating presidency, said the bloc was "looking for a substantial and meaningful redeployment by the Israeli government." Palestinians and other Arabs have looked to the EU to offset what they regard as U.S. bias towards Israel, but the European group lacks Washington's political clout in the Middle East. Arafat met the British junior minister in the West Bank town of Hebron which under a 1997 interim peace accord divided the city into Israeli- and Palestinian-ruled sectors. Hebron is holy to Moslems and Jews as the burial place of the biblical Abraham. Some 400 Jewish settlers live in heavily armed enclaves in the heart of the city of more than 100,000 Palestinians. A minor scuffle broke out between seven settler leaders and Palestinian police and civilians in Hebron on Thursday when the settlers tried to enter a Palestinian-ruled area to pray at a Jewish shrine without first coordinating with police. Witnesses said the settlers then staged a demonstration to mark the first anniversary of the Israeli troop pullback from 80 percent of the volatile town. In Palestinian-ruled Gaza, security forces were investigating the shooting of a Palestinian in his leg, apparently by an Israeli soldier, near where hundreds of Palestinians protested at Israeli expansion of Jewish settlements and Wednesday's cabinet decision, witnesses said. Khalid al-Khatib, secretary of the Islamic National Committee to Defend Land, told Reuters: "The aim is to declare our total rejection to the Israeli policy of settlements and land confiscations, especially after the Israeli government's decision yesterday to keep the largest lands of the West Bank in their hands." Israeli soldiers and Palestinian police tried to defuse the tensions on a Gaza road near Kfar Darom Jewish settlement.
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