The death of two Israeli soldiers in the West Bank town of Ramallah on 12 October and Israel’s retaliatory raids against offices of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat raised the temperature once more in the two-week old crisis in Palestine. The incidents overshadowed a UN announcement earlier the same day that Israeli and Palestinian leaders had agreed to a breakthrough trilateral security meeting. International efforts to negotiate a end to two weeks of bloodshed between the two sides had redoubled during the week as the possibility of a major regional conflict loomed.
The Israeli soldiers were killed when a crowd of protestors stormed a Palestinian Authority (PA) police station where they had been held. The two men died of multiple stab wounds, Israeli officials said, describing the incident as a ‘lynching’.
Palestinians accused the soldiers of being on an undercover mission; the Israeli army said they were reservists who had blundered into Ramallah by mistake. Israel hit back with helicopter attacks on Arafat’s offices in both the West Bank and Gaza.
The fresh escalation came just before a scheduled three-way security meeting, due to be chaired by George Tenet, director of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The agreement of the PA and Israel to attend the meeting was the first fruit of frantic shuttle diplomacy carried out by a number of international peace brokers including UN Secretary General Kofi Annan who arrived in the region on 9 October. He was joined by UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, EU chief foreign policy representative Javier Solana and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, all of whom were travelling back and forth along the now well-trodden route between Gaza and Jerusalem.
The US too has remained involved in the continuing negotiations with President Clinton embarking on a course of telephone diplomacy. Secretary of State Madeline Albright has temporarily reinstated the security clearance of the US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk so that he could assist in efforts to ease the tension.
The 12 October incidents seemed sure to ignite a new cycle of violence in the conflict that had left 94 people dead since the crisis was sparked off by Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s 29 September visit to the Haram al-Sharif, in Jerusalem.
The situation had looked like calming down when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak on 9 October extended by three-four days the deadline of an ultimatum to the Palestinians to stop the violence. He warned that if the fighting continued he would order the Israeli security forces ‘to employ all the means at their disposal in order to stop the violence.’ His use of helicopter gunships against Arafat’s offices seems guaranteed only to inflame the situation further.