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Palestinian Gunman Attacks, Kills Several Israeli Citizens

By Tracy Wilkinson

Disguised as an Israeli soldier and armed with an assault rifle, a Palestinian fired helter-skelter into a crowded bus station in the central town of Afula on Thursday, killing three Israelis and wounding at least 13.

The assailant was shot dead by police, in the latest spasm of violence escalating tensions in the region.

The attack prompted an angry rebuke from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- who directed as much of his wrath at the United States as at the Palestinians. Sharon accused Washington of sacrificing Israel in the quest to build an anti-terrorism alliance including Arab states.

Sharon’s unusually harsh condemnation of U.S. policies came during a late-night news conference called to comment on the crash into the Black Sea of a Russian airliner carrying dozens of Israelis. He expressed sorrow over the loss of life, then shifted to the Afula shooting.

He accused the Palestinians of repeatedly violating a cease-fire declared last month -- a charge that Palestinians also level against Israel -- and said Western democracies should stop pressuring Israel to negotiate “under fire” just because it would satisfy Arab states.

“Do not try to appease the Arabs at our expense,” Sharon said.

Keen to push the Middle East conflict to the back burner, the Bush administration has been urging Sharon’s government to open talks with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and to end what it called “provocative” actions such as incursions into Palestinian territory. The United States also demanded that Arafat work to stop terrorism by Islamic extremists.

But the Israeli government does not want to negotiate while Palestinians are still shooting and bombs are still going off. The United States wants peace in the region, but Sharon fears it would be in exchange for concessions he is not prepared to make.

Sharon compared the West’s actions today with those of European democracies before World War II, when the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia was sacrificed to appease Adolf Hitler.

“This is unacceptable to us. Israel will not be Czechoslovakia. Israel will fight terrorism.”

Sharon confirmed that Israel has suspended its part of a cease-fire declared last month, following Palestinian violations.

Israel will not ease the punishing closures that have blockaded Palestinian towns and will revert to a widely condemned policy of hunting and killing key Palestinian militants.

In the eight days since Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres agreed to formalize a truce, violence has been on the rise. With Thursday’s attack, 28 Palestinians and five Israelis have been killed in that period.