Mid East Battles Rage As Albright, Barak and Arafat Meet In Paris

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Palestinians besieged an Israeli outpost and engaged in shooting attacks in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Wednesday as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sat down for a protracted three-way meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat aimed at stopping the worst Israeli-Palestinian violence in four years.

Israeli helicopters fired rockets on Wednesday at tall buildings at the Netzarim junction in the Gaza Strip that were being used to shoot at Israeli soldiers from above, but nearby residents in the Israeli community of Netzarim say they are not thinking of leaving.

Fierce fighting that broke out over the past holiday weekend in the Gaza Strip has kept 60 Israeli families locked in the community of Netzarim for the last five days.

Some of the worst battles have taken place outside of the settlement near the Netzarim junction where the tragic death of a 12-year-old boy, Mohammed Aldura, was captured by a French film crew.

Shlomit Ziv, mother of six, lives in Netzarim. She and her family are depending on the Israeli army to keep them safe.

"The army is taking very good care of us," Ziv said in a telephone interview. Ziv and the other residents of Netzarim have not been able to go to work since the violence started and are relying on a helicopter to deliver milk products and fresh bread to the small store in their settlement.

Although they clearly hear the shooting at the nearby junction and Ziv has been housebound with her children - the oldest of which is nine - she said that she doesn't think of leaving. The fighting, she said, is not about her settlement; it's about dismantling Israel piece by piece.

"Netzarim is not the issue," Ziv said. The State of Israel is the issue, she said, adding that the fact that Israeli Arabs had taken part in rioting over the past few days indicated to her that the Palestinians don't just want the Gaza Strip but also all Israeli cities.

Prior to the Rosh Hashanah holiday, Israeli leaders began talking openly in the media about giving up the settlement of Netzarim, home to about 400 Israelis. Shortly thereafter, the fighting broke out, she noted.

Palestinians have said they will turn the Gaza Strip into another Lebanon. The reference is to the example that the Hizballah terrorist organization believes it set, when it claims that it drove Israel out of south Lebanon in May by engaging in relentless terrorist attacks.

Head of the southern command, Major-General Yom Tov Samia, said prior to the current clashes that he had warned the PA that Israel would not be driven out of Gaza by violence and that the army intended to protect and defend the 7,000 Israeli citizens who live there.

Ziv said she is "frustrated" because Arafat could put a stop to the shooting or the stone throwing by simply giving a command to do so. The first condition for Barak to meet with Arafat in Paris, she said, was for the shooting to end. She thinks it was a mistake for Barak to go to France while the fighting continues.

"Prime Minister Barak said that a cessation of violence is a precondition to further negotiations," a statement issued from his office read on Tuesday.

Early on Wednesday, Barak met with French President Jacques Chirac and said that he had traveled to Paris with the purpose of putting an end to the confrontations.

"It's about time to put an end to the new wave of violence between us and the Palestinians," Barak told reporters in Paris. "And the attempt to put an end to it is the reason why we came here today."

Chirac blamed the violence on a "provocation" which had been coordinated with Barak, a reference to opposition leader Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount last Thursday that sparked unrest among Palestinians on the Mount and later spread to the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel.

Chirac accused Israel of using excessive force and called for an international commission of inquiry.

Barak rejected Chirac's accusations and said that he was holding Arafat and the PA "responsible for the initiation of this wave of violence" and charged the PA leadership with the responsibility of deciding "to reach a peace agreement" or leading "the whole region into a deadlock."

Prior to meeting with Barak, Arafat set as a condition a tri-lateral meeting on the guarantee of protection for the Palestinians and an international inquiry commission.

Meanwhile, the death toll continued to rise on Wednesday, with four more Palestinians dead, bringing the total killed in seven days of violent clashes to 60.