OCCUPIED JERUSALEM, 15 March — US envoy Anthony Zinni arrived yesterday on a difficult Middle East peace mission, but the bloodshed continued, with the Israeli Army announcing it had killed a Palestinian activist and five others in a helicopter strike in the West Bank. It was a clear message that Israel was not stopping its strong-arm military tactics against perceived threats even as Zinni, a retired US Marines Corps general, headed into meetings with government officials.
The US State Department yesterday called for the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestinian-controlled areas, saying the move “would greatly facilitate” Zinni’s mission. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Washington wanted Israeli troops out of both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, particularly the town of Ramallah where Palestinian President Yasser Arafat is now.
“We do expect a complete withdrawal from Palestinian-controlled areas, including Ramallah and the other areas, that the Israeli Defense Force has recently entered,” Boucher said. “Such a withdrawal would greatly facilitate the work of Gen. Zinni,” he said. “That’s what we want to see, that is the kind of step we’ve been urging them to take.”
Six Palestinians, at least one of them an activist leader, were killed in two separate incidents near the West Bank town of Tulkarem. An Israeli helicopter gunship fired at least three missiles at the car of Palestinian group leader Mutasen Hammad as it drove by a poultry farm in Anabta village near Tulkarem. Hammad and a civilian bystander, a chicken farmer, were killed. Hammad was a local leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which is linked to Arafat’s Fatah faction. Two of Hammad’s aides were wounded, one critically, and another bystander was wounded, a Brigades member said.
Later in the day, five Palestinians were killed when their car exploded in Balaa village, also close to Tulkarem. “A yellow taxi was driving in Balaa when it exploded. We don’t know whether the car was booby trapped by the Israelis or if they fired a missile at the car,” a Palestinian source told Reuters.
Ahead of Zinni’s arrival, the hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the army to begin withdrawing from Ramallah. The move, reported by Israeli public radio, came against a backdrop of US-led criticism of Israel’s largest military operation in the Palestinian territories since capturing the land in the 1967 Middle East War. US President George W. Bush described the Israeli incursion as “not helpful” to efforts to forge peace.
The activist blown to death, along with a colleague Wednesday in an Israeli helicopter attack, also belonged to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an offshoot of Arafat’s Fatah group. The Islamist group Hamas said it would continue its attacks against Israel during Zinni’s visit. Elsewhere in the autonomous Palestinian territories, the Israeli Army made a new incursion following a bomb attack which destroyed a crack Israeli Merkava battle tank, killing its three crew, in the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian official said.
Tanks penetrated 1.5 kilometers and occupied the village of Al-Meghraqa south of the Jewish settlement of Netzarim to carry out searches, the source added. The attack on the tank was claimed by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and dealt a new blow to the army, following a similar fatal attack in which a Merkava was knocked out exactly a month ago in the same area.
Meanwhile, the Arab League chief, officials in the region and newspapers yesterday hailed the unprecedented UN Security Council resolution on Palestine while calling for action on the ground for its implementation. “This resolution envisaging a region in which two states, Israel and Palestine, live side-by-side inside recognized and secure borders represents an important and impartial development in the international community’s handling of the Israeli-Arab conflict,” the League’s chief Amr Moussa said.
Moussa, in a statement in Cairo, called on the United States, which sponsored Tuesday’s Resolution 1397, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations “to undertake the necessary measures to turn the spirit of this resolution into facts” on the ground. The resolution was “a clear message to the Israeli government of the international community’s rejection of the repression, assassinations, liquidation and destruction practiced” by Israel against the Palestinian people, he said.