Published May 12, 2003
JERUSALEM – Palestinian gunmen killed an Israeli motorist in the West Bank and Israeli troops raided a Palestinian town Sunday as Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) urged both sides to take concrete steps toward Mideast peace.
Fatah, the mainstream Palestinian group led by Yasser Arafat (search) and new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, and the Popular Front group, a radical member of the PLO, claimed responsibility for the roadside ambush. The shooting killed a father of six near the Jewish settlement of Ofra.
Later Sunday, three Islamic Jihad (search) members surrendered to Israeli troops after tanks and armored personnel carriers surrounded a building in the West Bank town of Jenin while helicopters provided cover fire from machine guns, residents said. The army said troops were looking for suspected militants.
On Monday, the Israeli military, citing security considerations, said it was sealing off the Gaza Strip until further notice, meaning that neither Palestinians nor foreign nationals would be allowed to enter or leave.
Sunday's raid came as Powell met Abbas as part of U.S. efforts to get started on a new peace plan, the so-called "road map" to Palestinian statehood.
The plan calls for the Palestinians to rein in militants while Israel eases its grip on the Palestinian areas. The Palestinians have demanded that Israel halt military strikes and targeted killings of suspected militants to improve the atmosphere and allow Palestinian security forces to assume control.
However, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said Israeli troops would not let up in their campaign against militants responsible for scores of shootings and bombings in the past 31 months of fighting.
Powell said Sunday the United States expects "rapid and decisive actions by the Palestinians" to dismantle terror groups and he has discussed "a number of specific actions" Israel can take to move the process forward.
Powell's meeting with Abbas was held in the West Bank town of Jericho, underscoring the U.S. intention to exclude Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from the process. Israel has confined Arafat to the West Bank town of Ramallah. Both the United States and Israel have accused Arafat of encouraging and aiding terrorism.
Powell backed Israel's insistence that Abbas take strong action to crack down on militant groups.
"We must ... see rapid and decisive actions by the Palestinians to disarm and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure," Powell said.
Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a leader of the Islamic militant group Hamas, responded that if the Palestinian leadership cracks down on militants -- as it did in 1996 -- "it will be like political suicide for the Palestinian government."
"Their (the United States' and Israel's) demands were clear: dismantle the Palestinian (militant) organizations and in return they will ease daily life, which is something unacceptable," Rantisi said.
Powell said he and Sharon also discussed "a number of specific actions Israel can take immediately to improve the situation in the West Bank and Gaza and help build an environment for peacemaking."
In what Israel billed as a confidence-building measure, it released 61 Palestinian detainees Sunday and said dozens more would be freed in coming days. A prisoners' support group said those being released were due to go home within two weeks anyhow, and dismissed the Israeli action as largely cosmetic.
Israel holds about 5,000 Palestinians, most of them rounded up during military offensives in the past year.