Peres To Meet Arafat Despite Fierce Gun Battles

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

Jerusalem ( - Diplomatic efforts to put an end to more than a month of confrontations ran alongside of an escalation of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Wednesday.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced Wednesday evening that senior statesman Shimon Peres would travel to the Gaza Strip to meet with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat despite a day of heavy exchanges of gun fire in which five Palestinians were killed and four Israeli soldiers were wounded.

A Palestinian policeman and a civilian were killed in a fierce gun battle south of Bethlehem on Wednesday. The Israeli army brought in helicopters and tanks after it became clear that four of its soldiers had been wounded and required evacuation.

In the Gaza Strip, three Palestinians were killed in violent clashes with Israeli troops. More than 20,000 Palestinians took part in a funeral for five Palestinians killed in the Gaza Strip earlier this week.

"Goodbye, martyrs, we will meet in paradise," they chanted. "We will take revenge against the Israelis, and this will happen soon."

Before dusk, the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo once again came under fire from Palestinian gunmen positioned in the nearby PA-controlled town of Beit Jalla. Israel returned fire from machine guns and combat helicopters.

Unlike previous attacks over the last month, Wednesday's assault occurred before sundown. No one was injured in the attack that kept the 40,000 residents of the area confined to their homes for the entire evening.

Elsewhere in Jerusalem, five firebombs were hurled into a busy intersection but caused no damage, and a pipe bomb exploded in the central part of the city, destroying a nearby civilian jeep.

Despite the escalating violence, Barak said that Peres would go ahead with the planned meeting with Arafat. In a terse televised statement, Barak said that Peres would not be engaging in negotiations with the PA leader but only delivering a message that Arafat should put an end to the violence..

Peres, along with Arafat and slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for his part in the 1993 Interim agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. His meeting with Arafat is seen as a last, desperate attempt to persuade Arafat to rein in the violence and return to negotiations.

Meanwhile, Barak, who held a special session of his security cabinet Wednesday evening, warned that an Israeli reaction to the day's violence would be forthcoming.