Despite International Efforts, Mideast Fighting Continues

Despite stepped up international efforts for a truce, Palestinian militants lobbed mortars at a Jewish settlement Thursday and Israeli tanks rumbled into Palestinian territory, firing shells and machine guns. A Palestinian was shot dead in the Gaza Strip.

A jittery Israel also shot down a small Lebanese civilian plane that entered Israeli air space, killing the pilot. The shooting occurred as Israel's military was on high alert for a possible Hezbollah guerrilla attack on the first anniversary of Israel's military withdrawal from south Lebanon.

The diplomatic push to end Israeli-Palestinian fighting began this week with the release of a truce plan proposed by an international commission headed by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell. But there's been no letup in the daily clashes, mostly in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

President Bush called Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Wednesday and urged them to take steps to end the fighting that has derailed years of painstaking peace negotiations.

Arafat, who was in Paris on Wednesday, said he would like to meet Bush and urged the president to follow the active role of his father, during whose administration the Arab-Israeli peace process began.

"I had mentioned this clearly with President Bush on the telephone ... and I am sure he would complete the road which we had discussed with his father President Bush," Arafat said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan also spoke with Sharon on Wednesday. A day earlier, Israel announced a unilateral cease-fire, saying Israeli troops would only respond in "life-threatening" situations.

Speaking in Dublin, Ireland, Mitchell said before the new flareup of violence that Israel's announcement of a limited truce was a "heartening sign" and that he hoped there would be further progress.

But the Palestinians rejected Sharon's move as a public relations ploy and the clashes have persisted.

Palestinians fired two mortar shells at dawn Thursday at the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in the central Gaza Strip, causing no injuries. An Israeli soldier was wounded overnight by a roadside bomb as vehicle passed by on the edge of the Gaza Strip, the army said.

Shortly afterward, five Israeli tanks entered a Palestinian area in central Gaza, opening fire with shells and heavy machine-guns at a Palestinian residential area and blocking a main road to Palestinian traffic, witnesses said. The tanks withdrew after about 30 minutes and the road was reopened.

Also, a 20-year-old Palestinian man, Shadi Fiam, died from a bullet to the chest as he was sitting outside his house in the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, the Rafah hospital said.

The shooting Thursday followed heavy gunbattles Wednesday in the southern Gaza Strip, where 38 Palestinians were hurt, according to doctors. On the outskirts of Jerusalem, an 86-year-old Israeli man was seriously injured by a bullet to the chest. Also, a Palestinian shooting ambush killed an Israeli motorist in the West Bank.

The Mitchell Commission plan calls on both sides to halt violence and urges Israel to freeze construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Several such plans have failed to end the Mideast bloodletting, and the report has sparked a new round of angry verbal exchanges between Israelis and Palestinians.

Mohammed Dahlan, a senior Palestinian security chief, said "Sharon's statements about the so-called cease-fire proposal are a public relations ploy."

"We will not accept it at all," he told a news conference. Dahlan also said that the Palestinians would not go back to peace negotiations unless Israel froze building on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres urged the Palestinians to join the truce effort. "I read that some of our Palestinian neighbors said that this is just a trick, a public-relations trick, on the side of Israel. I invite the Palestinians to pull the same trick," Peres said.

Since the outbreak of fighting in late September, 472 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 85 on the Israeli side.

Israel faced trouble to the north, too, a year after its May 24, 2000, withdrawal from south Lebanon.

On alert for possible attacks, the Israeli army said it shot down a small Lebanese civilian plane that crossed into Israel's air space and for 15 minutes refused to respond to radio contact, the army said. The pilot was believed to be the only person on board the Cessna, which crashed down on the coast about 30 miles north of Tel Aviv, the army added.