Gunman kills 2 Israeli guards in West Bank

Attack highlights the difficulty of curbing militants

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Steven Gutkin
Associated Press / April 26, 2008

JERUSALEM - The killing of two Israeli security guards by a Palestinian gunman yesterday focused attention on one of the biggest challenges facing Mideast peace negotiators: keeping extremists in check.

Israel says the moderate Palestinian leadership with whom it hopes to strike a peace deal by year's end is failing to ensure the calm necessary for any Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

A Palestinian militant, apparently pretending to be a laborer, shot and killed two middle-aged guards who were screening Palestinian workers as they entered an Israeli factory in Nitzanei Shalom, along the divide between Israel and the West Bank.

The Palestinian government led by President Mahmoud Abbas says it is making great strides in imposing order in the West Bank, the only area it controls following the June 2007 violent takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas militants.

But Israel says Abbas's forces have a long way to go before establishing the security control that would prevent the West Bank from meeting the same fate as Gaza, where militants capitalized on a 2005 Israeli withdrawal and began launching incessant rocket attacks.

Three militant groups took responsibility for the attack - Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and a violent offshoot of Abbas's moderate Fatah movement.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Al-Malki condemned the shooting and said it was meant "to undermine the efforts by the Palestinian government to undertake full security responsibilities in the West Bank."

In Washington yesterday, Abbas said he failed to achieve any progress in Middle East peace talks with President Bush and he was returning home with little to show for his visit.

In an interview, the Palestinian leader sounded pessimistic about the prospects of achieving any deal with Israel this year despite a big US push that began five months ago at a summit in Annapolis, Md.

"Frankly, so far nothing has been achieved. But we are still conducting direct work to have a solution," Abbas said.

Abbas said the biggest obstacle is Israel's continued expansion of Jewish settlements on Palestinian-occupied territories.

"We demanded the Americans implement the first phase of the road map that talks about the cessation of settlement expansion," Abbas said, expressing disappointment the United States has not exerted more pressure on Israel to stop.

House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said: "President Bush is helping to push the process forward. This wasn't a meeting in which major breakthroughs were expected."

Israel is pushing forward with controversial building projects on disputed land in the West Bank and east Jerusalem and is refusing to take down illegal settlement outposts, release Palestinian prisoners, halt military incursions, and dismantle roadblocks that severely disrupt daily life.

Abbas's aides said he also was upset about his meeting Thursday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. While discussing what a peace deal would look like, Rice didn't mention the Palestinian goal of creating a state based on borders before Israel captured Palestinian land during the 1967 Mideast war.

"We demanded that they talk about the '67 borders," Abbas said, showing a rare flash of anger. "None of them talks about the '67 borders."

The main unresolved issues include the final borders of a Palestinian state, the fate of Jerusalem, disputed Israeli settlements, and Palestinian refugees.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said Bush did not respond directly when Abbas brought up the issue of Palestinian objections to continuing Israeli settlement expansion when the two leaders met Thursday at the White House.

Abbas said he was looking for a full Middle East peace framework agreement that would be detailed and includes timetables, while the Israelis have signaled that a "declaration of principles" would be enough of an achievement before Bush leaves office in January.

"We don't want a declaration of principle because we had one," Abbas said, referring to the 1993 peace agreement reached at Oslo between the Palestinians and Israel. "Now we want a normal agreement. And then we can go for the details."

Despite his disappointment, Abbas said he would still meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert regularly in hopes of achieving a deal. But there are no three-way talks scheduled anytime soon with Bush, Abbas, and Olmert.

Bush is scheduled to visit Israel next month to help Olmert celebrate the country's 60th anniversary, and then travel to the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to see Abbas separately.

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