Riot rocks West Bank 3 Palestinian police, protester killed in clash with soldiers

Worldwide condemnations

Israelis, Arabs blame each other for using live bullets first

September 26, 1996|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF Reporter Joshua Brilliant contributed to this article.

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Israeli soldiers shot and killed three Palestinian police and a protester yesterday as demonstrations swept through the West Bank in the most violent clash of the 3-year-old peace process.

As many as 300 Palestinian demonstrators and seven Israeli soldiers were wounded in the riot, which capped a day of protest marches over Israel's decision to unseal an archaeological tunnel at the edge of the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, among Islam's holiest shrines. The firefight brought quick condemnations from around the globe from those already anxious about the deteriorating peace process.

"This is an eruption that has been long in the making," said Hanan Ashrawi, an official of the Palestinian authority who joined demonstrators in Jerusalem yesterday.

Israeli soldiers and Palestinian police traded gunfire after a protest march by Palestinian university students escalated into a stone-throwing confrontation with soldiers at a checkpoint in Ramallah, the most prosperous of the Palestinian-controlled cities on the West Bank. Israeli soldiers initially repelled the protesters with rounds of rubber bullets and tear gas, dispersing the crowd of several thousand that converged on the main street of the city, according to witnesses and Israeli military officials.

But the clash turned lethal when live ammunition replaced the crowd-dispersing rounds. Who fired first was in dispute last night. Each side blamed the other for the violent outburst that occurred on the Palestinian-controlled side of the checkpoint. Israel's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, and Gen. Uzi Dayan, commander of Israeli forces in the area, said Israeli soldiers returned fired only after being fired upon.

"The shooting -- I don't know the reasons or who was behind it -- as far as we understand now, Palestinian policemen fired or were most of the people who fired," Lipkin-Shahak told Israel Radio.

But several witnesses and two wounded Palestinians said in interviews that the Israelis fired first.

Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi was on the street in Ramallah when the shooting began. "It was like rain," said the physician, who treated wounded at the scene and later at Ramallah Hospital. "This is the explosion everyone was talking about and expecting. This is the start of the story."

Traveling in Europe, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Palestinian officials of inciting the day's riots. "This is a very dangerous game and I do not advise anyone to play it," Netanyahu said.

Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian authority, who was in Gaza, laid the blame on the Israelis: "This is an escalation by the Israeli government against our people who are protesting against a breach of the peace agreements."

Secretary of State Warren Christopher expressed alarm about the conflict and contacted Netanyahu in Paris to urge gestures toward reconciliation with the Palestinians. "The leaders should address the situation themselves," he said.

For weeks now, with the peace process stalled, Palestinians have warned of a return to the stone-throwing protests of the intifada -- the violent Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation from 1987 to 1993 when Israel signed a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Since Netanyahu took office in May, his hard-line government has approved the expansion of Jewish settlements, demolished Arab houses, planned Israeli-only roadways, and only recently eased a closure that kept thousands of Palestinians out of Israel and out of work after Arab terrorist bombings that killed dozens of Israelis.

The opening of the tourist tunnel in the old Holy City apparently galvanized the Palestinians. From Jerusalem to Nablus, Ramallah Bethlehem, they gathered to protest what they believed to be an assault on the sanctity of the Muslim holy shrines.

They complained even though the popular tourist attraction has been open for years with two-thirds of the tunnel accessible to the public. Israeli government officials talked about the benefits of the expanded tunnel: an increase in the tourist trade that would benefit Palestinian merchants in the Old City. But Palestinians would have none of it.

Demonstrations against the tunnel began Tuesday in the Old City. Arafat called for strikes and protests yesterday. And the people turned out.

In Nablus, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, protesters waving banners and Palestinian flags filled the streets. In Bethlehem, Palestinians clashed with soldiers at the Tomb of Rachel, the Hebrew matriarch. Hundreds of students from Bir Zeit University marched from the West Bank school to the center of Ramallah.

The demonstration began peacefully, but eventually turned into a confrontation between marchers headed for the checkpoint and the Israeli soldiers there.

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