Palestinians, Israelis prepare for talks with new U.S. envoy

Israelis and Palestinians readied themselves Tuesday for talks with a new U.S. Mideast envoy, a tough retired Marine Corps general expected to press the two sides to stop 14 months of fighting.

Anthony Zinni is to arrive with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns at the beginning of next week, Israeli and Palestinian officials said, seeking to end the violence that has resisted successive U.S. cease-fire efforts.

A career military man, Zinni, 58, could press his advantage to talk strategy with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who also is a retired general. Zinni can also speak to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Arabic.

Zinni traveled in the Middle East and studied Arabic during four years as the top U.S. military commander in the area in the 1990s. He has also dealt with international disputes like the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict.

Those who have seen him mediate say the retired Marine general prefers a thoughtful, pragmatic approach over head-butting.

Meanwhile on the ground, Israeli forces early Tuesday entered a Palestinian refugee camp in the Gaza Strip and destroyed four houses before withdrawing, the military and witnesses said.

The military said two abandoned buildings were demolished because of frequent shooting attacks. Palestinians said the demolition was unprovoked.

One of the homes belonged to Nazmia Abu Jazar, 35, a mother of eight. ``Where do I go now with my children?'' she asked.

Israeli forces also remained at the entrance of the Palestinian town of Jenin, despite repeated U.S. calls on Israel to withdraw its troops from Palestinian areas.

In nearly 14 months of fighting, 758 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 197 people on the Israeli side.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell announced Zinni's appointment as a special adviser in major policy speech Monday on the Mideast.

Later he said: ``You'll see what pushing and prodding is when Tony Zinni gets on the ground.''

Both sides are appointing high-level teams to meet with the U.S. emissaries.

Sharon said he and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres would head the Israeli side in talks to implement a cease-fire negotiated by CIA director George Tenet in June but which never took hold.

Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia said the highest officials in the Palestinian Authority, including Arafat, would oversee the talks.

Qureia welcomed Zinni's appointment. ``We are ready to cooperate with him,'' he said. ``It's a good step.''

In his speech at the University of Louisville, Powell signaled a renewed U.S. engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict driven in part by concerns that the violence could erode Arab support for the U.S. war on terrorism.

He said that Palestinians must stop violence, declaring their 14-month to be ``mired in ... the quick sand of violence and terror.'' Israel, he said, must accept a Palestinian state, lift restrictions on Palestinians and stop Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza.

Powell told reporters that Zinni wold stay in the region to work on getting a cease-fire and then on implementing the report of an international commission headed by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell on how to resume peace talks.

A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Zinni's mission would extend beyond implementation of the Mitchell report into the peace negotiations themselves.

Writing in the Maariv daily, columnist Hemi Shalev said that Zinni is ``an envoy of a type never seen in this region a general through and through'' with vast experience in the Arab world. He said Zinni would have a direct line to Powell and possibly also to President Bush.