Violence Unending in Middle East

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

Jerusalem ( - The Israeli army shot and killed five alleged members of a Palestinian terror cell, while shooting attacks on Israelis continued unabated throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip overnight.

The continuing bloodshed indicates that stepped-up diplomatic efforts, including meetings between Israeli and Palestinian security heads over the weekend, are not ending two months of violence, which has left more than 270 people dead.

The Israeli army said it identified an "armed terror cell" near the West Bank town of Kalkilya whose members had fired on a passing Israeli car. Although the incident took place on Sunday night, details emerged only on Monday.

Israeli soldiers "opened fire precisely on the cell and killed five terrorists," an Israeli army statement said. "The army will continue in actions against everyone who endangers the security of Israeli citizens and soldiers."

Palestinian sources confirmed that the five were activists in Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization, but insisted the men had been unarmed when shot.

Army spokesman Yarden Vatikay the group was intercepted in the place from which shots had been fired and "it's not a spot where people walk at 10:00 in the evening." One pistol was found at the site, he said.

Heads of Israeli and Palestinian security forces met on Sunday, but there were no reports of a breakthrough that could end the violence. Security chiefs on both sides have met periodically throughout the past two months but have not been able to quell the violence.

Shooting attacks were "spreading" throughout the West Bank and no area was free from attacks, Vatikay said. The Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo came under heavy fire again on Sunday evening, sending residents running for cover.

There have been more than 2,500 shooting and bombing incidents in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since violence broke out two months ago. Many thousands of stone-throwing attacks had also occurred.

Israeli security forces remained on high alert as the Islamic holy month of Ramadan began on Monday. But Vatikay said that the situation was already so violent, he did not expect a new surge during the fast month.

However, the Fatah movement issued a call in a statement to Palestinians who want an independent state to raise the level of what it called the "popular protest" during Ramadan.

More International Involvement

Arafat, meanwhile, has continued to press for the reopening of diplomatic channels and involvement of more players in the discussions for a permanent accord.

Russia seemed to be edging its way into the arena on Friday, when President Vladimir Putin arranged a phone conversation between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak over the weekend, while the Palestinian leader was visiting Putin in Moscow.

Barak and Arafat agreed to resume low-level security cooperation and re-open 10 liason offices, which Israel had ordered closed after a district coordinating office was bombed last week killing one soldier.

Despite Egypt's recall of its ambassador to Israel last week, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has continued to remain involved in the diplomatic process. Mubarak met with Israel's head of Barak's political and security staff Danny Yatom on Sunday in what was described by the prime minister's office as a "good and productive" meeting.

Mubarak refused to allow the two to be photographed together and neither spoke to the press, but according to a statement from Barak's office Mubarak "expressed total support for the demand for the cessation of the violence" and called on Israel and the Palestinians "to renew the dialogue between them."

Mubarak, who met with Arafat earlier, said Arafat also supports an immediate cessation of the violence.

Israel has demanded that the level of violence be substantially decreased if not stopped altogether before it returns to the negotiating table. But some Israeli leaders are now questioning Arafat's complete ability to control the violence.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said Israel had been "receiving lately very clear signals from Arafat that he wants to halt violence." However, Ben-Ami said in a television interview that, "It is possible he is incapable of bringing about a complete cessation."

Time is short

Time may be running out for peace deal and for Prime Minister Barak. The Prime Minister, who has been ruling with a minority government since July, is facing two no-confidence motions in his government on Monday and the first reading of a bill to dissolve the Knesset and call for early elections on Tuesday.

Barak has survived several no-confidence motions in his government, despite the fact that he has less than one-third of the Knesset actually backing him. However, he did not succeed in enlisting the support of opposition parties in his government during the current crisis.

Opposition leaders wanted Barak to swear off the peace process as it stands now and declare null and void any understandings he reached with Arafat at the Camp David summit arranged by President Clinton in the summer.

Several of his coalition partners quit the government prior to Camp David, fearing that Barak would make too many concessions to Arafat - a fear, which they later said came true.

Early elections would hamper any progress toward an agreement, which is highly unlikely now during the current atmosphere of violence.