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Take That, Zinni

Sunday’s attack by a Palestinian gunman against Israeli civilians looked like a message to US envoy Anthony Zinni, now in the region to push both sides toward a ceasefire: militant extremists want to keep fighting.

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Envoy with an unenviable brief

At this rate what little peace there is in the Middle East will not hold.

The lone Palestinian gunman who opened fire on a street inside Israel proper Sunday killed at least one civilian and wounded 16, afternoon reports from the scene said.

Police said the attack had taken place just after noon at a central junction in Kfar Saba, a site of previous attacks located about two miles from the West Bank border, Reuters reported.

"There was a terrorist who came to the junction and opened fire at the civilians there. Policemen close by shot and killed him," police commander Aharon Franco told Army Radio.

This attack, followed shortly by a bomb blast in Jerusalem that injured nine, was exactly the sort of attack that has in the past guaranteed retaliation by Israel. The only difference Sunday was that US envoy Anthony Zinni was in the region.

Diplomacy under fire

Zinni pressed ahead with plans despite the attacks, keeping a meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

But if the US envoy proves unable to restrain Israel in this moment his efforts during this visit, like twice before, may go unheeded.

Shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, working in what has begun to look like the George W. Bush's first major attempt to arrange peace in the Middle East, Zinni's assignment is to mediate in a conflict where militants would rather keep fighting.

Whatever the intended message of Sunday’s attack, it served as a reminder – not that anyone needed reminding – that many Palestinian extremists do not trust an Israel-friendly US to be a honest broker and that they desire no deal with the government in Tel Aviv.

Constructing good faith

Before Zinni’s visit, the Bush administration drafted and successfully presented a UN Security Council resolution calling for Palestinian statehood. Bush himself came down hard on Israel’s increasingly grand military incursions into Palestinian terrorities, dismissing them as "unhelpful". But the envoy’s leverage, very simply, may be lacking – no matter how great his diplomatic skill, no matter how great the pressure he can bring to bear.

Since September 2000, when peace talks broke down, at least 1,072 Palestinians and 345 Israelis have died in related violence.

Just Saturday night, Zinni had the two sides bickering over details of exactly what sort of Israeli withdrawal from which parts of Palestinian territory, and which sort of security guarantees from the Palestinian side, would make good pre-conditions for a ceasefire.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had refused to "have political negotiations under fire", and through Sunday afternoon Arafat had not accepted initial Israeli withdrawals as a sincere olive branch. Yet the focus on details of a possible ceasefire had, at least, interrupted a escalation in violence in the 17-month-old conflict.

There was in that sense a chance, in some hopeful hearts and minds, that the guns might go quiet.

War footing

Nothing illustrated so graphically how difficult Zinni’s task will be, if he is to succeed, than the street scene in Kfar Saba, when the shooting broke out.

Reports from the scene described a sudden burst of fire from the Palestinian’s gun, followed by a wild and largely inaccurate crossfire of return shots from Israeli civilians on the street.

The gunman was eventually struck down, according to a Reuters report, not by a police bullet but by a shot fired by a truck driver who chanced upon the scene and reacted to what was happening.

The shooting Sunday was not an exchange between militaries, rather between civilians. Not just the governments of Israel and Palestine are on a war footing, but the people themselves.

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