8 more die in Mideast violence Israeli forces rush Muslims at Al Aqsa Mosque

Calls for peace intensify

Netanyahu, Arafat may meet tonight, and again next week

September 28, 1996|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Israeli riot police rushed stone-throwing Muslims at the Al Aqsa Mosque yesterday, staining the stone courtyard of the Islamic shrine with blood in the third day of the conflict that is tearing apart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israeli forces would continue to defend themselves, and he urged Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to end the violence.

The confrontation in the Holy City provoked new Palestinian outbursts on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as intensifying international calls for a return to the peace process.

Israeli police said the fight in Jerusalem yesterday began after Palestinian worshipers came out of the Al Aqsa Mosque and began stoning Israelis.

They said they fired rubber bullets at the Palestinians.

In Jerusalem and other battles, eight Palestinians died and more than 50 people were wounded, including five policemen, according to official reports.

Since Palestinians first protested Tuesday over the opening of an Israeli tourist tunnel near Al Aqsa and the Haram-al Sharif compound in Jerusalem, 54 Palestinians and 14 Israeli soldiers have died in the rioting and gun battles on city streets.

While U.S. and other Western leaders labored to restore calm, Netanyahu and Arafat, the president of the Palestinian authority, each demanded that the other side end the conflict.

Arafat, talking to reporters in Gaza, said the peace process was "the only way to work a way out of violence and killing and the attacks that are taking place."

The two leaders have spoken twice by phone, and third parties were trying to set up a meeting between them. At U.S. urging, they reached the brink of an agreement to meet tonight, probably at Erez, the main crossing point between Israel and Gaza.

U.S. officials said assurances that Netanyahu would notify Arafat at the meeting that Israeli troops in Hebron would be redeployed was a key factor in moving the two leaders toward agreement.

A second meeting probably would be held early next week in the region with Secretary of State Warren Christopher participating.

Christopher's aim, said the officials, is to move beyond the tunnel dispute.

The secretary of state, they said, would like to see negotiations begin on a final settlement.

In his first full briefing on the violence that has engulfed his 100-day-old administration, Netanyahu offered no concessions to the Palestinians, who blame a stalled peace process for the public protests that swiftly developed into riots and then gun battles between Palestinian police and Israeli defense forces.

"We negotiate peace in peaceful means. Not on the street. Not with Molotov cocktails and not with guns," said a stern-looking Netanyahu. "We negotiate around the table, and we're prepared to resume the negotiations around the peace table."

He called on Arafat to intervene personally to stop the violence, and offered an outstretched hand of peace.

Flanked by his top defense leaders, he accused Arafat of inciting the violence. The Palestinian leader crafted a "mendacious lie" about an Israeli tourist tunnel near the Al Aqsa Mosque "to set a religious fire and bring political pressure on us" with violence.

The tunnel, part of which has been open for six years, runs the length of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount and along the edge to nearby Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock.

Israelis unsealed the back end of the tunnel this week, and it now exits into the Muslim quarter. Arafat and other Palestinian leaders claimed that the tunnel extension endangered the Islamic shrines.

Netanyahu acknowledged that the Palestinian leader had used his influence to calm his people and restrain his police force. Yesterday morning, before the incident at Al Aqsa, the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Nablus, scenes of fierce fighting a day earlier, were quiet.

But Netanyahu and several members of his defense team questioned whether Arafat had the will to end what they claim he deliberately ignited for political gain.

"Arafat set the fire in the beginning. Arafat can also extinguish the fire. I am not sure he can control the height of the flames," said Moshe Ya'alon, the army intelligence chief.

Since the start of the unprecedented fights between Israelis and armed Palestinians, the Palestinians have blamed the violence on Netanyahu's hard-line policies, saying that they have stalled the peace process they had hoped would bring them independence and prosperity.

Ami Ayalon, chief of Israel's Shinbet intelligence agency, acknowledged yesterday that the opening of the tunnel was "the lodestone of frustration" for the Palestinians.

But Netanyahu refused to accept any responsibility for the conditions that led to the rioting. He defended his administration's commitment to peace and insisted that frustration was no excuse for violence.

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