Young Bethlehem Arabs clash with Israeli troops over Jerusalem project Protest is first against Jewish housing being built in Palestinian area

March 21, 1997|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- A crowd of Palestinian youths hurled stones yesterday at Israeli soldiers who retaliated with tear gas and rubber bullets in the first disturbances since work began on a new neighborhood for Jews in nearby Arab East Jerusalem.

The confrontation began at midday outside the tomb of the biblical matriarch Rachel, which is guarded by the Israeli army and fortified by a recently built concrete wall. The disturbance lasted several hours and spread to nearby streets as youngsters ran to escape the gas. No serious injuries were reported.

Palestinian security forces had tried to restrain the Arab demonstrators.

Israel Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai urged Palestinians to refrain from violence, saying army intelligence warned of more outbursts today during the noon Muslim prayer hour.

"Violence can only damage, it's not going to help those people who believe the peace is necessary to everybody in this area," Mordechai said in an interview on Israel radio last night.

Israeli forces have been on the alert for possible violence since construction began Tuesday on a pine-topped mountain nestled a valley between the southeast Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Rachel and the Palestinian-controlled city of Bethlehem.

Bulldozers worked for a third consecutive day on the site Israelis call Har Homa where a 6,500-unit housing development is being built for Jews.

Palestinians say the new settlement is Israel's latest attempt to gain greater control of East Jerusalem and thwart their desire to have the predominantly Arab sector of the city named as a capital of a future independent Palestinian state.

"We reject Israel's attempts to decide the future of Jerusalem unilaterally," Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said in a speech to the Palestinian Legislative Council in Gaza yesterday morning. "There will be no peace without Jerusalem."

As the Bethlehem disturbances were beginning, Jewish settlers moved into a house in another Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem. The settlers are part of a movement to reclaim Silwan, an area outside the Old City walls where they say the biblical King David established the first capital of the Jewish people.

In another development, Israeli and Palestinian officials debated a proposal by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speed up the peace talks. Netanyahu wants to move directly to negotiations on the future of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

The move, which Netanyahu has proposed before, would effectively fast-forward the process past previously agreed Israeli troop withdrawals from the West Bank. But Palestinians rejected the proposal.

"We have an agreement in our hands. We should continue with the timetable," Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, told Israel radio. "Mr. Netanyahu's bulldozers are determining the result of the negotiations before they begin, whether it's at Abu Ghneim or other places on the West Bank."

Jabal Abu Ghneim is the Arab name for the mountain in southeast Jerusalem where Israeli is building the Jewish housing development. The name has become the rallying cry for Palestinians and other Arabs who oppose Israel's settlement policies.

The Bethlehem confrontation began when a crowd of several hundred Palestinians gathered in the northeast sector of the city.

A line of Palestinian police struggled to keep them from walking the several blocks to Rachel's Tomb. But about 100 youths broke through the line and marched to the end of a barricaded street. They hurled stones at the Israeli soldiers stationed across the street at Rachel's Tomb.

The soldiers responded by firing rounds of tear gas. But the young protesters would not be deterred. Some, their faces wrapped in scarves, picked up the canisters and tossed them back at the troops. Others set fire to tires in the street. And the black smoke curled into the sky, mingling with plumes of tear gas.

On a nearby street, an Israeli army truck equipped with a water cannons rolled toward a handful of stone-throwing boys. The trucks let loose with streams of water as the boys dodged behind houses and garbage containers.

Still the stones flew. Israeli soldiers crouched behind low stone .. walls. Other troops fired tear gas rounds from rooftops. The stones kept coming.

"This is the intifada returning back," said Hussam Odeh, a 28-year-old truck driver, referring to the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation from 1987 to 1993, when the two sides signed a framework for peace.

Watching the exchanges of stones and tear gas, Odeh said: "The side of the Palestinians, the side of the Jews, they don't want to sit at the table. We should go back to the table and talk."

Pub Date: 3/21/97

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