US balks at Mideast monitors

The UN is slated to meet today, after a weekend of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

As the United States prepares to veto a United Nations Security Resolution dispatching international monitors to anguished areas like this, Israel apparently has intensified its strikes against Palestinians in the occupied territories.

In the Gaza Strip, two Palestinians were killed and at least 18 were wounded over the weekend as Israel mounted an incursion into Palestinian Authority territory, launched a missile strike against a police station, struck civilian houses in a refugee camp, and destroyed a local headquarters of Yasser Arafat's presidential guard, Force 17. In the West Bank yesterday, another Palestinian was killed.

Israel says the weekend incursion into the Khan Unis refugee camp came in response to the firing of mortars by Palestinians, and that its troops were coming under "constant barrage." One Gaza outpost is taking "20 to 30 grenades a day," says Ra'anan Gissin, spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. One Jewish settler was reportedly injured by a Palestinian mortar round yesterday.

Palestinians say Israeli troops initiated the shooting in every instance.

Israel's weekend offensive comes as the UN prepares to debate on Monday the question of sending international monitors to conflict areas. It also underscores the impact of a further loosening of the Israeli army's guidelines for opening-fire, after strictures were reportedly eased early this month.

The weekend assault started with the midnight ambush and assassination of Fatah activist Abed Abu Bakra deep in Palestinian Authority territory on Friday, hours after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - a former general - held a strategy session near here with top army commanders. Several months ago he had berated them for not being active enough.

"It was a military visit, and he was the guest of the southern command," said Gissin. "He came to see things first hand, and since he has all that experience, he can give advice."

The 18 Palestinians treated at Khan Yunis's Nasser Hospital over the weekend were equal to the total number for the month of July, say hospital officials.

"I think it's because the army has changed the rules for opening fire," says Mohammed Shurab, spokesman for the hospital. "I live here and am witness to what happens every day. The bullets have a red color which I can see at night. There's more shooting by Israel."

A colleague, who asked not to be identified, watched Saturday night as two surface-to-surface missiles passed over his house on their way from Rafah, south of here, to a Palestinian national security facility near Khan Yunis.

Army spokesman Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz says the missiles were fired in response to mortar fire on Saturday, and that they "targeted the sources of fire." But Ze'ev Schiff, the military affairs analyst for Ha'aretz newspaper, says mortar fire emanating from a Palestinian security forces building would be "unusual."

He adds that on some occasions, people have fired mortars "from areas close to the Palestinian national defense apparatus."

Gissin says Israeli troops are in a purely defensive posture. "Israel is not initiating. There is one side that is initiating terror. Israel is only responding." Israel has "no quarrel" with Palestinian civilians, he says, adding that the Palestinian Authority "must understand that it bears responsibility and cannot allow the continuation of terrorist activity."

But in Khan Yunis Refugee Camp, which is close to the Israeli settlement of Neve Dekalim, it was civilians who were being hurt this weekend. Fresh shrapnel holes in the corrugated roofs of the destitute camp were visible in two homes 100 meters apart.

One three-month-old baby was injured in his crib when a piece of shrapnel entered his home and grazed his head Saturday night. The boy's sister says she heard no Palestinian shooting preceding the Israeli tank fire.

Another Palestinian infant was critically wounded after soldiers opened fire on Palestinians attempting to pass a checkpoint near Nablus, West Bank, according to Palestinian reports. The army says it is checking the report. Yesterday, Israeli troops shot dead a 13-year-old Palestinian boy in the Gaza Strip and killed a Palestinian man trying to slip past a checkpoint in the West Bank.

Marwan Kanafani, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, voiced frustration yesterday over US plans to veto the Palestinian-backed bid for the dispatch of international monitors to the occupied territories. "In a situation where one party has the power, military might, and US support against a group of people who are defenseless, without connections, without military might to defend themselves, their property and their livelihood and daily life, we are looking for the international community to support the Palestinians with monitors and observers who would report to decision-makers, including the US, to take the necessary decisions to protect our hopes, lives, property, land and people."

Gissin, however, says the US should block the monitors idea. "They would create a shield so that the Palestinians can continue operating behind it and make it impossible for Israel to respond," he says.

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