Where stones flew, now bullets are flying Violence: Opening the tunnel in Jerusalem sparked the protests in Israel, but the rifles of Palestinian policemen escalated the level of bloodshed.

September 27, 1996|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF Reporter Joshua Brilliant contributed to this article.

JERUSALEM -- When Israelis unsealed a gray steel door to a tourist tunnel on the edge of the Temple Mount this week, they gave Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a vehicle he could use to galvanize Palestinian frustration and anger over a stalled peace process.

The tunnel is close to two of Islam's holiest shrines and thus touches the historic emotional core of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

It became the catalyst for Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza Strip to confront Israeli police and soldiers as they had not done since the struggle against Israeli occupation from 1987 to 1993 -- the intifada -- ended with a historic peace agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

But unlike the intifada, when Palestinians were armed with stones, a rifle-toting Palestinian police patrolled nearby.

Quickly, for the first time, the confrontation turned to war with real guns and real bullets.

Which side fired the first real bullet remains in dispute.

But leaders from both sides offer their own view of why this crisis has turned into one of the bloodiest conflicts in the West Bank and Gaza since the 1967 war -- an event that may have critically wounded the peace process.

The Palestinians blame the hard-line policies of the Likud government, which was elected in May and determined to revive objectives that the peace process obstructed.

The administration of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu puts the onus on a Palestinian authority willing to use violence to push the peace process ahead.

"The issue is not the Hashemon cave," said Health Minister Zahi Hanegbi, referring to the tourist tunnel that chronicles 2,500 years of Jerusalem history.

"The Palestinians looked for an excuse to exert pressure through violence. This is the prediction which we had warned about during the days of the previous government.

"The minute there will be a dispute the weapons will be turned toward us."

The Israeli government's position is easily explained, said David Bar-Ilan, an adviser to the prime minister.

"Once you make a commitment to peace, you must discard the option for war," said Bar-Ilan. "When you say there is going to be a return of the intifada, you are saying we have another option, the option of war."

The Palestinians see it differently.

"Israel is guilty of provoking and inciting violence," said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. "Distrust has been building up and brewing in an accumulative ** way.

"The Palestinians have been mobilized because they have lost faith in the peace process."

Netanyahu won election as prime minister by promising an Israeli public, devastated by a series of terrorist bombings this spring, that he would take tougher stand against the Arabs.

There can be no peace without a security, he told Israelis.

Netanyahu supported expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, opposed transferring land to the Palestinian authority and would not negotiate on the sovereignty of Jerusalem, which Israel contends is the undivided capital of the Jewish state.

He also said he would not pull Israeli troops from the Palestinian city of Hebron, as the agreement with the Palestinians stipulated Israel would do.

Since Netanyahu took office, his government has approved settlement expansion, claimed West Bank land for new road projects and demolished Palestinian houses it says were built illegally.

The Netanyahu government has essentially continued the closure of the borders between Israel and Gaza initiated by the previous government after terrorist bombs killed several dozen Israelis.

The new government attempted to pull identity cards from Palestinians in Jerusalem and insisted that the Palestinian authority had to close its offices in the predominantly Arab eastern part of the city.

While the previous government met frequently with Arafat, the president of the Palestinian authority, Netanyahu refused to meet the Palestinian leader until this month -- when he did so under pressure from Washington.

He was fulfilling promises made during his election campaign.

"Today we intend with all determination to make it clear to the Palestinians they crossed all the red lines," said Health Minister Hanegbi. "Peace, yes, but only through retaining the framework which provides us a secure life in our land."

The policies have dealt a harsh blow to the peace process, in the mind of Netanyahu's opponents.

"At the moment, the peace process is lying on the road and bleeding to death," said Efraim Snee, a retired general and former minister in the Labor government. "Netayanhu's policy presented the Palestinians with a dead end.

"Unnecessary steps were taken of degrading their leadership, postponing meetings, turning the mere dialogue into a prize for good behavior," said Snee, a member of the Israeli parliament.

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