JERUSALEM - The West Bank and Gaza exploded in the worst bloodshed in four years yesterday as Israeli troops exchanged fire with Palestinian police and other gunmen and shot into mobs of rock- and Molotov-cocktail-throwing rioters.
At least 13 Palestinians were killed, including a 12-year-old boy caught in a crossfire during a fierce battle at an Israeli army post protecting a Jewish settlement in Gaza. An ambulance driver who tried to rescue the boy was also killed. Twenty-two others were critically injured, Palestinian authorities said.
The Israeli army said its soldiers fired only in self-defense. Altogether, 20 Palestinians have died in what Palestinians call the "Battle of Jerusalem" after a visit Thursday by Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon - a focus of Palestinian hatred - to the Old City plateau known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al Sharif.
Starting Thursday in Jerusalem, the riots have spread into a generalized act of rage against the Israeli military presence in the territories. Until yesterday in Gaza, Palestinian police had not engaged in gunbattles with Israeli soldiers. In Nablus, masked Palestinian gunmen in plainclothes fired at Israeli soldiers from an olive grove.
Palestinians say their police acted to protect demonstrators against Israeli gunfire. Three Palestinian policemen died. Israeli casualties were relatively light, with a soldier dead from a roadside bomb attack Wednesday and an Israeli officer killed by a Palestinian policeman in an isolated attack Friday.
The escalating violence has brought widespread criticism of Israel in the Arab world, including from Jordan and Egypt, which have made peace with Israel. There were also international calls for restraint on both sides and a warning from U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright that "there is danger of a cycle of violence developing" that will undermine the peace process.
After a phone call last night between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Israel issued a statement saying the two men had agreed that senior security officials from both sides would be in steady contact "for the purpose of restoring calm."
Meanwhile, the two sides traded blame, with Palestinians accusing the Israelis of excessive force, including shooting to kill and using bullets that burst on impact. Palestinian Cabinet Minister Nabil Shaath called Friday's fighting on the Temple Mount a "premeditated massacre."
Israel said that the violence by Palestinians was clearly orchestrated, with children cynically used in the front lines, and charged that the Palestinian Authority had lost control. Israelis have been barred from the territories in a safety move that will also have an impact n the Palestinian economy.
A general strike in the territories set the stage for yesterday's riots, with regular Saturday school classes canceled and businesses closed. No strike has been called in the territories for today, but Palestinian television announced that Israeli Arabs would strike in protest against the army's actions.
The clashes yesterday were the worst since 1996, when 60 Palestinians and 15 Israelis died in battles throughout the West Bank and Gaza. In both cases, Palestinians reacted to what they called an Israeli provocation involving the Temple Mount, where thousands of Muslims regularly pray.
Besides Gaza, gunbattles also broke out yesterday south of the West Bank city of Nablus, leaving two dead and roads to the city a smoking mess of rubble, burned tires and twisted, metal barricades. Rioting also occurred in Jenin, Ramallah, Hebron and East Jerusalem.
The incident likely to remain a symbol and focus of anger was the death of 12-year-old Rami Aldura, caught in the crossfire at the Netzarim junction in Gaza. Palestinian television repeatedly played footage of the boy being hit as his father, who was injured, tried to protect him.
The Israeli army said it couldn't determine whether the gunfire that killed the boy came from the Israeli or Palestinian side.
A spokesman condemned the Palestinians' "cynical use of children and women."
"What is the child doing there? Learning how to riot?" asked the spokesman, Yarden Vatikay.
Even younger children joined the stone-throwers. A 10-year-old being treated at a Gaza hospital after being wounded in the knee with a rubber bullet said he has been politically engaged since his earliest years and wanted to get rid of the Israeli occupation.