Shooting of 3 Arabs sparks heated rioting

JERUSALEM — The stalled peace process has created a tense atmosphere in which any incident has the potential to set off a regional explosion.

A car accident in the Gaza Strip was the spark that ignited the intifada, the 1987 to 1993 Palestinian uprising.

And this week, when Israeli soldiers killed three Palestinians in a van at a West Bank roadblock near Hebron, there were warnings from Palestinian officials that a new intifada was in the making.

Indeed, Tuesday's incident at the roadblock — where it appeared that Israeli troops wrongly assessed the motives of the van's driver — prompted riots in three separate West Bank towns.

But in a sharp contrast to 1987, there were mechanisms in place for cooperative steps to prevent tensions from escalating even further.

With that in mind, the Israeli commander in the West Bank, Maj. Gen. Uzi Dayan, met Wednesday with senior Palestinian security officials to discuss ways to calm the situation.

The meeting came amid the West Bank clashes, in which Palestinians clashed with Israeli soldiers, who responded with rubber bullets that wounded at least 20 people.

The clashes took place while thousands of Palestinians in the town of Dura, located near Hebron, attended the funerals of the three workers killed as they were returning home from their jobs in Israel.

In Hebron, rioters threw gasoline bombs and rocks at Israeli troops. There were also riots in Dura and in the Ramallah area.

Palestinian police were deployed around Dura to help restore order, and large numbers of Israeli troops were stationed in and around Hebron to quell the disturbances there.

Near Ramallah, a Palestinian was wounded in the leg when a Jewish settler whose car was pelted with stones opened fire. The settler was later questioned by police.

There were conflicting accounts regarding Tuesday's incident at the Turkemiya roadblock.

Israeli soldiers guarding the roadblock opened fire on the van after it veered toward the roadblock, causing light injuries to one soldier.

The troops later said they believed the van's driver was deliberately trying to run them over.

This was denied by Palestinian officials and by a passenger in the van, who said the driver had sped up in an attempt to bypass a line of waiting cars at the roadblock.

Senior Israeli army officials later admitted this was probably the case. They said an initial inquiry also indicated that the van's driver did not intentionally drive at the troops.

"The soldiers felt that their lives were threatened, and this feeling was a bona fide one. On the other hand, I don't think the Palestinians were involved in a terror event," Dayan told reporters.

Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat denounced the shooting as a "big crime against our workers who were returning from their work."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telephoned Arafat Tuesday night to express condolences over the shootings.