Six Palestinians killed in clashes with Israeli army

Gunbattles a show of defiance after attacks on Arafat

March 31, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Palestinians and Israeli soldiers engaged in a new burst of bloody violence in the West Bank and Gaza yesterday, leaving six Palestinians dead, in jarring contrast to peaceful protests by Israeli Arabs and a kid-gloved police response inside Israel.

The riots and gunbattles in the occupied territories marked a show of defiance by Palestinians after Wednesday night's Israeli helicopter attacks on Yasser Arafat's home and security headquarters. They may signal a return to mass action after many weeks of sporadic guerrilla shootings and terrorist bombings.

The resulting casualties indicated that neither Palestinians nor the Israeli army heeded President Bush's call Thursday for a halt to Palestinian violence and restraint by Israel.

One Palestinian man was killed in Ramallah, just north of Jerusalem, where the army reported an exchange of gunfire, and five more in Nablus, a large Palestinian city in the northern West Bank, where the army said it used rubber-coated bullets but the Palestinian Red Crescent Society reported deaths and injuries from live ammunition. An Israeli soldier was slightly injured inhaling smoke from a Molotov cocktail in southern Gaza. On the Palestinian side, the Red Crescent, the Islamic version of the Red Cross, reported more than 200 injuries - 45 of them from live ammunition.

As the conflict entered its seventh month, a Palestinian legislator from Nablus, Husam Khader, predicted that the cycle of violence and Israeli crackdowns would increase. "This will give a good atmosphere for the Palestinian national resistance, like Hamas, to increase its military actions," he said, referring to terror attacks.

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said it will mount a sustained attack against terrorists and those who dispatch them. Sharon's increasing criticism of Arafat, now echoed by Washington and even some in the Palestinian elite, suggest to Khader that "there may be steps against Arafat himself."

While the West Bank and Gaza witnessed fresh bloodshed, the Palestinians' brethren - Arab residents of Israel - living inside the Jewish state, gathered by the thousands for the 25th annual Land Day demonstrations but made them the most peaceful in years.

Land Day commemorates the deaths of six Israeli Arabs in 1976 during protests against the Israeli government's expropriation of Arab land for the purpose of increasing the Jewish population of Israel's northern Galilee region.

Despite those protests, a major program to build Jewish communities went ahead the next year, when a Likud government came to power and Ariel Sharon became agriculture minister. Sharon oversaw construction of 30 Jewish settlements on hills overlooking Arab villages.

Land Day has come to combine protests against land seizures and what Israel's 1 million Arab citizens say is discrimination in a variety of spheres, including education, housing and government services.

This year, two added elements were sympathy for the Palestinians fighting for an independent state and lingering anger over a police crackdown against rioting in October, in which 13 Israeli Arabs were killed. Jewish peace activists and leftists joined the Israeli-Arab demonstrations.

"We're here for one reason, because we have no other nation," declared Mustafa Abu Raya, mayor of Sakhnin, site of the largest demonstration. He called on Israel to leave the occupied territories "as France left Algeria and your army left Lebanon."

Although there were chants against Israel and the United States, violence appeared in symbols only - an Israeli flag burned at the end of the rally in Sakhnin and a toddler hoisted on a marcher's shoulders, holding a plastic toy Kalashnikov rifle.

The Israeli government and police were determined that the events of October not be repeated and held meetings with Arab leaders over the past week to make sure that yesterday's demonstrations did not end in bloodshed.

Arab leaders were intent on proving that October's casualties resulted from excessive police force and not provocation by protesters. They promised that if police stayed out of their communities, Land Day would be peaceful. There was another reason: After October, many frightened Israeli Jews stayed away from Arab businesses.

Uzi Landau, public security minister in the Sharon government, commended the Arab leadership for having "stood up to their promise" and the police for their calm way of handling the demonstrations. Landau drew a contrast with the Israel reaction to Palestinian violence, saying, "We will demand that the Palestinians pay an increasing price" in areas where violence occurs.

Ameer Hakhoul, an Israeli Arab who directs the Union of Community-based Associations, said the Sharon government had succeeded in breaking a link between Israeli Arabs and "our people in the West Bank and Gaza."

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