GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Nine Palestinians were killed Sunday – six in a mysterious explosion in Gaza and three by Israeli army fire in the West Bank – while Palestinian and Israeli officials prepared to send teams to London for a new international effort to end 29 months of Mideast violence.
The Palestinian delegates are carrying a letter from Yasser Arafat to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in which the Palestinian leader affirms his intention to appoint a prime minister, fulfilling a key demand of the United States and other mediators, said Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Shaath.
Arafat made the promise publicly on Friday, under heavy pressure from the so-called Quartet of Mideast mediators – the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. But it remained unclear how much power Arafat might cede, who would be appointed, and when the appointment would be made.
Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said a genuine transfer of authority from Arafat to a prime minister could be a breakthrough leading to new peace talks.
On Sunday, however, violence continued.
In Gaza City, a blast tore through the home of a member of the Islamic militant group Hamas, killing six Palestinians and wounding three, witnesses and hospital officials said.
The cause of the blast was not immediately known. In the past, explosions have occurred when Palestinian militants mishandled explosives. A Hamas official said the explosion was in a car. After keeping reporters away for more than an hour, Hamas showed them the damaged car.
Hamas spokesman Ismail Haniyeh blamed Israel. “The Israeli enemy used a unique technology which caused this massacre.” he said, without giving details.
There was, however, no evidence that the explosion was caused by Israel – although Israeli officials have said they would react to a Gaza roadside bombing, claimed by Hamas, that blew up a tank and killed its four-man crew on Saturday.
In the West Bank city of Nablus, three Palestinians were killed and about two dozen wounded by army fire in a clash between soldiers and Palestinian gunmen and stone-throwers, Palestinian security officials said. One of the wounded was comatose and on life support, hospital officials added.
The army said Palestinians shot at troops who were arresting Tayseer Khaled, a senior PLO member. The soldiers returned fire, hitting what the military described as “two terrorists.” A military spokeswoman said she had no knowledge of additional Palestinian casualties.
The two incidents brought the death toll since fighting erupted in September 2000 to 2,109 on the Palestinian side and 727 on the Israeli side.
On the diplomatic front, a six-member delegation of Palestinian Cabinet ministers – comprised of Shaath, Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, Local Government Minister Saeb Erekat, Finance Minister Salam Fayad, Economics Minister Maher al-Masri and Tourism Minister Nabil Qassis – is to participate in three days of talks in London this week, starting Tuesday.
In London, the Palestinian officials will meet with international donors and diplomats monitoring Palestinian reform and will hold talks with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on Thursday.
A United Nations official in Jerusalem, speaking on condition of anonymity, said representatives of the Quartet would meet Monday in London prior to talks with the Palestinians and that there would likely be extensive diplomatic discussions in addition to the formal talks on international aid.
Gissin said an Israeli team would also meet the Quartet delegates. Gissin did not say if that would happen separately or together with the Palestinians, but did not rule out an Israeli-Palestinian meeting at some point during the London visit.
He said Foreign Ministry official Yossi Gal, deputy director-general for economics, would head the Israeli delegation, expected to leave Monday for London.
Such an encounter would be the first meeting of official Israeli and Palestinian delegations in at least a year.
Gissin said separate cease-fire talks between top Sharon aide Dov Weissglas and Hani al-Hassan – the Palestinian Cabinet minister in charge of security – would take place soon, although he could not give a date or venue.
Gissin said much depended on the plans for a Palestinian prime minister.
“It has to be someone who has the authority (and) the full control which now is vested in the hands of Yasser Arafat,” Gissin told The Associated Press on Sunday. “We will bless that and we will welcome that, and that could lead to eventually returning to the negotiating table.”
But Shaath said Sunday that the appointment could take weeks, as it must be discussed by the Palestinian legislature and another decision-making body, the PLO Central Council.
President Bush last summer called on the Palestinians to choose a new leadership, echoing similar calls by Sharon. Bush also laid out a vision for a preliminary Palestinian state by 2005.