Crossroads for Palestinian uprising

After year of intifada, pressure building to stop, turn up violence

Rallies mark anniversary

October 01, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank - The rally in the city square marking the anniversary of the Palestinian uprising started as a subdued, almost tired affair.

Masked militants chanted anti-Israeli slogans and burned a cardboard model of an Israeli settlement. But while marching the body of a slain youth through the streets, they honored a truce accord and abandoned the machine-gun salute that typically accompanies a martyr's funeral.

A short time later, however, hundreds of Palestinian teens shouting, "Let's go to the fire" rushed an Israeli army checkpoint on the outskirts of Ramallah and unleashed a torrent of rocks. Soldiers fired back tear gas, stun grenades and rubber-coated bullets, injuring two dozen.

The contrasting scenes were a striking public demonstration of internal differences on how the year-old Palestinian struggle should proceed - a debate that until this weekend had been confined to academic halls and political theater.

Although Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is worried that continued violence will brand him a terrorist in the eyes of the world, abandoning the armed uprising that has clamed more than 750 lives could mean trouble at home, where increasingly powerful militant groups sound a renewed call to arms.

"He promised an end to the occupation and prosperity through the peace process," said Ghassan Khatib, a moderate Palestinian political analyst. "But if he doesn't deliver, then he gives a voice to his critics who contend that talking is a waste of time."

Violence surged across the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the past three days. Three Palestinians were killed by Israeli troops in the West Bank yesterday. That brings the three-day toll to 13 Palestinians killed, including a 10- and a 14-year-old boy, and more than 150 wounded by Israeli gunfire. More than a dozen Israeli civilians and soldiers have been wounded by Palestinian gunmen.

Thousands of Palestinian demonstrators marking the anniversary took to the streets throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In a rally in the West Bank city of Nablus, 25,000 people marched, some holding posters of suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, and voiced objections to Arafat's truce talks.

The deadly weekend has at least initially shattered a fragile cease-fire agreement worked out last week between Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Arafat.

Yesterday was full of recriminations, with leaders on both sides complaining that the other was responsible. Palestinian leaders accused Israeli soldiers of firing into crowds of peaceful demonstrators.

"If this is called a cease-fire, then what is war?" said Palestinian Minister of Information Yasser Abed Rabbo. "If the Israelis continue this policy, then the cease-fire will collapse and no talks can salvage the situation."

Israeli leaders said the violence proves Arafat is not serious about ending the conflict peacefully. But after an emergency security cabinet meeting Saturday night, Israeli officials decided to proceed with steps agreed to during a cease-fire meeting last week and lift an army blockade on one quiet Palestinian city, Jericho.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he would wait 48 hours to decide whether to clamp down on the Palestinians or, if there are no shootings, lift more blockades and begin withdrawing troops positioned around other Palestinian cities on the West Bank.

Sharon and Arafat are under pressure from the United States to end the conflict, which is a distraction for American officials trying to shore up a coalition, which includes states sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, to fight terrorism.

Yesterday, Israeli media commentators called the new peace process, which includes security meetings brokered by the CIA, a sham to placate U.S. interests.

"Arafat neither can nor does he want to stop the intifada because the Palestinian street appears to be unwilling," said the largest circulation daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth. It added that both sides know the other is cheating but officials must "smile at the cameras because that is what the world wants now."

During the weekend, Arafat repeatedly ordered fellow Palestinians to give the truce a chance and not to "give the Israeli occupation an excuse to launch a military aggression against our people." But his orders were largely ignored.

Ramallah was a prime example of the confusion and contradictory messages from the Palestinian leadership.

Palestinian police officers guarding the city square said they were under orders to keep armed militants away and to prevent them from firing into the air during the funeral march for a 17-year-old shot by an Israeli soldier at the nearby Ayosh Junction.

The officers also blocked roads leading to the junction with barrels and sandbags, hoping, they said, to prevent a mass demonstration that would lead to violence. But officers merely watched as hundreds marched to the junction anyway, prodded by fiery speeches.

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