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Middle East Crisis Headlines - 2/20/2001

Tuesday, February 20, 2001 | Tag Cloud Tags:

Middle East Crisis Headlines - 2/20/2001
Israeli and US forces began a joint military exercise today to test Patriot missiles, used to intercept Iraqi Scud missiles during the Gulf War in 1991. The war games in the Israeli desert began three days after the US air strike on military installations near the Iraqi capital Baghdad. Israel said the timing of the missile defense exercise was coincidental. "The exercise has been planned for over a year and is part of routine US-Israel training to validate the effectiveness of air defense systems," the army said in a statement. Caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Barak met security officials yesterday to discuss developments in Iraq. His office said in a statement that Israel would keep a close eye on the situation, but "there is no need to take any sort of special measures." Nevertheless, the Israeli public is concerned. Since the US attack, more than 10,000 people have inquired about refurbishing their gas masks.

Efforts to form a national unity government have hit a snag, after Barak came under fire from his Labor Party for accepting Ariel Sharon’s offer to serve as defense minister. Leading Labor cabinet ministers, including Yossi Beilin and Shlomo Ben Ami have blasted Sharon for reneging on his vow to take a time out after his resounding election defeat. They say Barak is the cause of Labor’s calamity and he should draw conclusions. But these ministers also oppose the entire concept of a unity government, saying it will end any chance of peace. "I really expect this government of opposites that they want to form to be constantly stuck and I would really advise the Labor Party not to be a part of this," Ben-Ami told Army Radio today. Beilin described a coalition between Labor and Sharon's Likud party as "a forgery." But Sharon appealed to Labor parliamentarians to give a unity government a chance. "Unity among the people, in light of the difficult security situation as well as the political challenges facing us, is more important than narrow political interests," he said.

Indeed, the security situation continues to deteriorate. In the latest flare-up of violence, a gun battle erupted after Palestinian militiamen opened fire at the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo in southern Jerusalem, from the nearby village of Beit Jala. Israeli soldiers returned fire, pounding the presumed hiding places of the gunmen with tank shells, rockets and machine gun fire. There was also a protracted firefight between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli troops in the Gush Katif bloc of Jewish communities in the southern Gaza Strip. A bus carrying Arab laborers to Gush Katif's industrial zone was fired at by Palestinian gunmen and although several bullets penetrated the bus, no one was hurt. In Judea and Samaria, two roadside bombs exploded as an Israeli army convoy drove along a road near the Palestinian-ruled town of Jenin. The army said no one was hurt in the blasts.

A state inquiry began hearing testimony today on the deaths of the 13 Israeli Arabs, killed during clashes with Israeli police in northern Israel at the start of the Palestinian uprising. Three Arabs and four police officers were to testify. Barak agreed to the inquiry a few months ago, hoping it would appease Israeli Arabs threatening to withdraw their parliamentary support. Barak was able to remain in power with the help ten anti-Zionist Arab Knesset members who supported him from outside the coalition. However, they abandoned him despite the gesture, causing the collapse of his government, and contributing to his landslide election defeat. The Arabs, who traditionally support the Labor party, largely boycotted the election.

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