Palestinians arrange truce with militants

November 20, 1994|By New York Times News Service

GAZA CITY, Gaza -- Struggling to rescue itself from its deepest crisis, the Palestinian self-rule government arranged a temporary truce yesterday with Islamic militants and agreed to investigate street battles between police officers and protesters Friday that killed at least 13 people and wounded as many as 200.

Unlike the day before, Gaza City's streets did not echo with gunfire for long hours yesterday, although shots were occasionally heard. Both the Palestinian Authority led by Yasser Arafat and the dominant Muslim group, Hamas, sought to pull back from the brink of what some here fear could become a civil war.

Whether their truce amounted to more than a one-day lull in the fighting remained to be seen. But one thing was plain: Mr. Arafat is in dire political straits, sorely testing his often-proved ability to rebound.

He is short of cash to run his authority, uncertain about the consequences for his peace talks with Israel and deprived now of good will on Gazan streets. People were still numb yesterday over the fact that Palestinian police officers, welcomed with joy when self-rule began in May, had opened fire on fellow Palestinians.

"Killing people was a sign of weakness," said Dr. Iyad Sarraj, who heads a public mental-health program and is a leading figure in the Gaza Strip. "Arafat is not credible among the masses."

Tensions remained high yesterday, with violence continuing in Gaza and spreading as well to the West Bank, although it took the form of relatively familiar clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers.

Three Arabs were shot to death by Israelis, two in the West Bank town of Tulkarm and one near the isolated, heavily fortified Jewish settlement of Netzarim, just south of Gaza City.

At Netzarim, the Associated Press reported, an Israeli soldier was fatally wounded in the stomach by shots fired from a passing car.

In Gaza, Islamic groups and Mr. Arafat's authority may have agreed to avoid provocative actions yesterday, a day of funerals and wakes, but that did not mean peace.

Each blamed the other for the crisis often in harsh language, and the self-rule government added an air of confusion and mystery by charging that unspecified "foreign hands" and collaborators with Israel were behind the violence.

It said hospital X-rays show that eight of those killed Friday had been Arafat loyalists who were shot, execution style, with pistols not used by the Palestinian police force. Others were shot with plastic and rubber bullets, also not used by police, the authority said.

"We have reason to believe there have been instigations and attempts to blow this up into a major civil war," Nabil Shaath, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said after a meeting of Mr. Arafat's senior aides. "We believe these parties used bullets and shot at both sides."

Neither he nor other authority officials offered corroborating evidence for these allegations. At Shifa Hospital, where most of the wounded were taken on Friday, a doctor said that he personally had seen more than 20 victims and all had been shot with bullets fired by Soviet-model automatic rifles -- the kind carried by the Palestinian police.

On the streets, Gazans were skeptical of the government claims, especially relatives of the victims.

Mohammed Imawi, whose brother, Hamdi, was killed, said that he had seen his brother's body and could tell that the bullet hole had been made by a powerful rifle.

"Our people know the difference between bullets from machine guns and from pistols," said Mr. Imawi, whose brother was a Hamas supporter. "This is very clearly a lie. I saw the shooters."

All these charges and counter-charges, authority officials said, will be taken up by a formal investigation ordered yesterday by the Palestinian Authority in the hope of appeasing angry militants. Hamas and Islamic Holy War, the main Muslim factions, will be represented on a fact-finding commission, the officials said.

Mr. Arafat himself has said nothing publicly about the events Friday.

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