Beliefnet
JERUSALEM, Nov. 8 (AP) - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has made the clearest offer yet of an independent Palestinian state but said it must be the result of negotiations that would resume only after the current violence abates.

The violence continued Wednesday. An Israeli customs agent was killed in an attack that Barak said called into question Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's intentions on the eve of meetings with President Clinton aimed at reviving peace talks. Israeli soldiers shot and killed two Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Three Palestinian gunmen opened fire on an Israeli vehicle heading to an Israeli-controlled crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, killing the customs agent and lightly injuring her male colleague. Army rescuers came under fire as they evacuated the two.

A group allied with the militant Islamic Jihad, a small organization opposed to the peace process, claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement faxed to The Associated Press in Damascus, Syria.

In retaliation, Israel shut down the crossing and Gaza's airport, which it jointly controls with the Palestinians.

Officials said they believed the gunmen came from the direction of the air field. The army has accused Arafat of smuggling in arms on his presidential jet - a charge Palestinians have dismissed as absurd.

Barak's pledge of a ``viable Palestinian state'' came in a long letter to the heads of all the world's governments, meant to explain Israel's policy in its weeks of conflict with the Palestinians.

The Israeli leader said he made far-reaching concessions during a Mideast summit at Camp David, Md., in July. ``We could resume negotiations which - based on the ideas discussed at Camp David - will lead to the creation of a viable Palestinian state,'' Barak wrote in his letter Tuesday to world leaders, ``or we can succumb to the route of violence and unilateral Palestinian action.''

If the Palestinians choose violence, he warned, ``Israel will be forced to take measures to ensure the security of our citizens.''

In the past, Barak has said he would not rule out the creation of a Palestinian state, but Tuesday's statement was his clearest promise yet of eventual Palestinian independence. Barak's letter appeared, in part, aimed at undercutting possible world support for a unilateral Palestinian proclamation of independence.

The chances for such support have been undercut by Western criticism that the Palestinians are sending youths to the front lines as a means of garnering world sympathy. One of the two Palestinians shot dead by Israeli soldiers during clashes in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday was 16. Another two Palestinian teen-agers died overnight of wounds sustained earlier in the conflict.

The Palestinian Authority said it is working to persuade teen-agers to stay out of confrontations with Israeli soldiers. At least 170 people have been killed in the clashes that began Sept. 28, most of them Palestinians, including many teen-agers.

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo wrote to an Israeli human rights group that children are being told ``to stay away from flash points,'' but he blamed Israel for the casualties. ``Why do they respond to rocks with rockets?'' he wrote.

Preparing for his meeting with Clinton on Thursday, Arafat said he is seeking a 2,000-strong U.N. force to protect his people from Israeli soldiers.

The U.N. Security Council was to discuss the Palestinian request Wednesday. Barak rejected the idea, charging that posting an international force would be a ``reward for violence.''

Arafat aide Nabil Aburdeneh said Arafat will ask Clinton to work to ``stop the Israeli use of force against the Palestinians immediately.''

Arafat planned talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and British Prime Minister Tony Blair on his way to Washington.

Barak is to meet Clinton on Sunday. Barak's aides downplayed the prospects of a renewal of negotiations as a result of the talks in Washington.

Media reports after the failed July summit said that Barak offered Arafat a state in about 90 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and control over Palestinian sections of Jerusalem. Arafat rejected the offer, insisting on full sovereignty over most of the Old City of Jerusalem, including holy sites common to Muslims and Jews.

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