Rabin reverses strategy on settlers encamped on hills

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has announced a new strategy for settlers camping out on West Bank hillsides: Let them bake in the sun.

"If there are those who go up on a hill against the law," Rabin said Tuesday, "we will let them dehydrate awhile."

But Rabin said he would not permit the settlers to build any permanent structures at the sites of their demonstrations.

The stance marked a reversal of Rabin's recent marching orders for Israeli security forces, which for the past two weeks have been forcibly removing protesting settlers from the hot, shrub-covered hillsides of the West Bank.

The settlers began occupying the hillsides earlier this month in an effort to thwart the still-evolving agreement for extending Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank.

Rabin's announcement came as Israeli police continued their efforts to reconstruct the events surrounding the violence that erupted this week when Palestinians clashed with settlers at a hillside encampment near the West Bank settlement of Beit El.

The incident occurred Sunday when some 100 Palestinian residents of the nearby Arab village of Deir al-Kara went to the hill, where they tore down a tent and set fire to an Israeli flag.

A short time later, a security officer from Beit El and several settlers came to the site and fired shots into the air to disperse the crowd.

Palestinian witnesses said 22-year-old Kheiri Qaissi was hit by the gunfire. He later died in a hospital in Ramallah.

On Monday, Israeli police arrested their fourth suspect in connection with the shooting, Ze'ev Lipskind, a resident of Beit El.

Lipskind was identified from newspaper photographs showing him pointing his rifle directly into the group of Palestinians on Sunday.

Lipskind, who was questioned at Ramallah police headquarters, was not cooperating with the investigation, according to police officials, who said they were going to seek an extension of his detention.

Three other Jewish settlers detained in connection with the shooting were brought before the Jerusalem Magistrates Court on Monday for a hearing.

The judge extended by 48 hours the detention of two of them, Beit El security officer Yehuda Dana and the secretary of the Beit El council, Rabbi Haim Sultan.

The court released on bail a third suspect, Beit El spiritual leader Rabbi Shalom Patchenik, after police found no connection between him and the events.

The judge ruled that Dana had overstepped his bounds of authority when he fired into the air to disperse the rioters.

But Dana proclaimed his innocence.

"I know the shots I fired were not the ones" that killed the Palestinian, Dana told reporters in the courtroom. "The bullets in my gun were different from those they found in his body."

Police officials said they believed Qaissi was hit by a bullet from an M-16. Dana's weapon was an Uzi submachine gun.

Sunday's shooting death drew heated calls for vengeance from Palestinians.

Dozens of Palestinian youths rioted in Ramallah on Monday, and Israeli troops were called in to disperse them.

Meanwhile, in the latest expression of opposition to the peace process, a group of residents from central Israel announced plans to settle a hilltop in the West Bank.

Organizer Aaron Lerner said the land in question had been turned over by the army to a regional council nearly 10 years ago.

"We're not going on to land that is questionable" or owned by an Arab family, he said.

He said the demonstrators planned to build "permanent structures" at the site.