Barak Calls for Emergency Government

Barak Calls for Emergency Government After Airstrikes

J E R U S A L E M, Oct. 12

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak tonight ordered the formation of an emergency coalition government after a day of escalating violence in which Israeli helicopter gunships opened fire on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in retaliation for the slayings of three Israeli soldiers.

Israel launched the airstrikes after a mob of Palestinian youths in the West Bank town of Ramallah attacked four Israeli soldiers, killing three, according to Barak and Israeli army officials. Previous reports indicated only two deaths. The mob attack came after two weeks of clashes that have killed at least 97 people, most of them Arabs.

Late Thursday, President Clinton announced he had cleared his schedule to focus on the crisis in the Middle East. The president has scratched evening appearances at two fund-raisers and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He also dropped plans for visits Friday in Missouri and Arkansas.

Barak said he hoped to form the emergency government with the participation of opposition politicians, including right-winger Ariel Sharon, a leading opponent of peace deals with the Palestinians.

Palestinians have blamed Sharon, the Likud Party leader, for provoking the recent bloodshed with his Sept. 28 visit to a key Jerusalem holy site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif. Sharon says he had every right to go there, and blames the Palestinians for the violence.

“Ariel Sharon is a deserving, serious man and definitely a very important partner for a national emergency government and obviously in such a government he could be influential,” Barak told a news conference after a day of Cabinet meetings.

Sharon has yet to say he would join the coalition. His participation would likely harden Israeli positions in any future peacemaking with the Palestinians. Bringing Sharon into the government would also anger the Arab world and some of Israel’s allies who have assailed his highly publicized trip to the Jerusalem shrine.

The Israeli government also announced tonight that it was halting the airstrikes on Palestinians, which injured more than 17 people. However, Barak warned airstrikes would resume “if there is a need … and we will do it when, and to the extent, required.”

It was not immediately clear why Barak felt the formation of an emergency government was necessary.

Airstrikes Increase Hostilities

Earlier in the day, Israeli rockets struck the Palestinian police station in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where the mob killed three Israeli soldiers. The official Palestinian TV station, which had been broadcasting extensive video of the violent clashes of the past two weeks, was also targeted.

The police station was reduced to rubble, and columns of smoke were seen curling from a radio transmission building that was also hit.

Witnesses said helicopter gunhsips fired in the vicinity of Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Gaza City, but the building was not hit and the Palestinian leader was not in the building during the attack.

Tonight, Israeli helicopters also attacked the Palestinian police academy in Jericho, striking it with eight missiles.

The use of helicopter gunships by Israelis has been seen as a clear escalation of hostilities in the region and has drawn strong reactions from the Palestinian side.

Mob Attacks Israeli Soldiers

The violence reached a flashpoint this morning, when enraged Palestinians seized four Israeli soldiers, described by the Israeli army as “uniformed reservists,” killing three. The fourth soldier is believed to have escaped.

In what the Israeli army called a “lynching,” at least one body was tossed out of a window into a crowd of hundreds of youths in Palestinian-ruled Ramallah, witnesses said. A car in which the soldiers apparently had been traveling was burned.

An ABCNEWS team in Ramallah was attacked as they were photographing the attack on the Israeli soldiers. The news team reported about 2,000 youths stormed the police station building and they saw one of the bodies being thrown from the second-floor window. The body was carried away by the mob, and then the town shut down in apparent anticipation of an Israeli retaliation.

”When we started shooting [filming] the stabbing and throwing [of] the bodies ? then the youths came to us and they stopped us with some knives, with some beating,” said Nasser Atta, an ABCNEWS producer.

War of Words

The airstrikes were the first major Israeli assault since Arafat returned to the region in 1994 and the two sides launched negotiations aimed at a comprehensive settlement. However, Arafat did not appear daunted.

A smiling, defiant Arafat was cheered by hundreds of Palestinians as he toured the Gaza sites hit by rockets. “Our people don’t care, and don’t hesitate to continue their march to Jerusalem, their capital of the independent Palestinian state,” he said.

Barak said the attack was necessary, and stressed that Israel would not hesitate to use force. “This operation is precisely what is needed under these circumstances,” he told reporters after the Cabinet meeting. “And at every single stage and at any moment, we will do exactly what is needed.”

The World Reacts

International reaction to the bombing has been swift and strong.

While strongly condemning the killing of the three Israeli soldiers, President Clinton today urged Palestinians and Israelis to stop the violence.

”I call on both sides to undertake a cease-fire immediately and immediately to condemn all acts of violence,” he said. “Now is the time to stop the bloodshed, to restore calm, to return to dialogue and ultimately to the negotiating table.”

Addressing reporters in the White House Rose Garden today, Clinton said there was no choice but for the two sides to return to the peace process. “The alternative to the peace process is now no longer merely hypothetical, “ he said. “It is unfolding today before our very eyes.”

Clinton, who has cancelled a four-day political trip scheduled to begin Friday, devoted most of his day to speaking with Middle East leaders on the phone, including Arafat, Barak, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah of Jordan, and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

One senior administration official indicated that Mubarak and Abdullah showed an increase concern in the matter today, and at one point today, Clinton, Arafat, and Mubarak had a three-way discussion of the situation.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair called for calm in the Middle East and talked to President Clinton about reviving political dialogue.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov described the developments as “negative” and said it was premature to speak of a breakthrough in easing the two-week bout of violence.

Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi called on the international community today to press Israel to stop attacking Palestinian cities.

”The whole world has to tell Israel to stop shelling civilians, to stop shelling our towns, and to move out of the occupied territories,” Ashrawi told Britain’s ITN News Channel.

But Ashrawi did not say whether Palestinians planned to retaliate in kind for today’s attacks.

Israel, meanwhile, said the helicopter attacks were a restrained, “token” response to the lynching of its three soldiers.

The U.S. State Department is preparing a travel warning related to the conflict, urging Americans to take special care and avoidance of crowds on the West Bank, in Gaza and in Israel’s Old City.

ABCNEWS’ Andrew Morse and Gillian Findlay in Jerusalem, Rebecca Cooper at the State Department, Bassem Barhoum in Ramallah and Sue Masterman in Vienna and The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.