Baraks government, troops under attack

JERUSALEM — When Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak travels to the United States in two days, he will leave behind faltering peace talks, a government in jeopardy and violent flare-ups with the Palestinians.

Barak hopes his trip, which is set for Sunday through Tuesday, will invigorate peace talks with the Palestinians — a goal shared by President Clinton, who wants to achieve a Middle East peace accord before he leaves office.

The prime minister will also use the trip to draw attention to U.S. support for Israel's planned troop withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

The trip comes after Barak secured approval from the Israeli cabinet and Knesset this week to transfer three Arab villages outside Jerusalem to full Palestinian control. This gesture, which was aimed at building confidence among the Palestinians, may have cost Barak his ruling coalition.

And in a dark convergence of events, the decision Monday to hand the towns to the Palestinians came on the day that gunfights erupted between Israeli troops and Palestinian police officers in the worst violence the territories have seen in four years.

According to conflicting reports, at least four to five Palestinians were killed over the several days of rioting.

In addition, hundreds of Palestinians and more than 15 Israeli soldiers were wounded. At least two of the Israeli soldiers were injured by gunfire from Palestinian security forces.

Monday also witnessed the first mass right-wing protest against Barak since he was elected a year earlier. Hours after the Knesset vote, tens of thousands of Jewish settlers converged on Jerusalem's Zion Square, where Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon told the crowd that the Barak government "has bowed to the Palestinian rioters."

Likud officials dubbed the violence a "new intifada."

The potent Palestinian-Israeli clashes began last Friday as Palestinians demanded the release of more prisoners held in Israeli jails. The riots augmented over the weekend, peaked on Monday and continued Tuesday and Wednesday.

On Monday, the protests marked the annual event known as al-Nakba, which is Arabic for the catastrophe. Al-Nakba marks the end of the British Mandate in 1948 — the day after Israel declared its independence.

Most of the Palestinians were wounded by rubber bullets and tear gas fired by Israeli troops to disperse rioters throwing stones and Molotov cocktails.

The scenes were intense.

At the Balata refugee camp on Sunday, hundreds of youths burned Israeli flags and fired shots at an effigy of Barak. Israel Defense Force snipers received permission to fire live ammunition to wound rioters if they endangered troops with firebombs.

At the Netzarim junction in Gaza, 300 Palestinians blocked the area for several hours and threw stones and firebombs at an IDF post. The clashes prevented settlers at Netzarim from leaving and entering the community.

In Bethlehem on Monday, a group of nearly 500 Palestinians marched from the town toward IDF troops at Rachel's Tomb and threw stones, bricks and bottles.

Near the Kadim settlement, Palestinian police opened fire at IDF troops, seriously wounding the IDF deputy commander of the Jenin district office.

And at the Ayosh junction north of Ramallah, fierce clashes occurred around noon Monday as Palestinians threw scores of firebombs and stoned IDF troops. Palestinian policemen began firing live ammunition at IDF troops and border policemen shortly afterward, wounding a border police officer.

Copying an Israeli tradition, Palestinians throughout the West Bank, Gaza and eastern Jerusalem on Monday observed two minutes of silence at 10 a.m. to mark al-Nakba.

When sirens sounded on Palestinian radio, traffic stopped and Palestinians stood in silence. Muslim preachers called out "Allahu Akbar" (God is great) through loudspeakers from mosque minarets and church bells rang. A commercial strike was also in effect.

Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement had called for the strike and the two minutes of silence.

"In the Palestinian psyche, Nakba is like the Holocaust for the Jews," said Nabil Sha'ath, the Palestinian minister of planning and international cooperation.

"I am not trying to make any comparison…6 million Palestinians were not killed….but the Palestinians have lost their homes. They became refugees…430 Palestinian villages and towns were totally destroyed by the Israelis," he said.

Barak discussed the rioting on the phone Monday night with Arafat, who Israeli officials said had encouraged the protests.

For their part, Palestinian officials called the street demonstrations a public outpouring of frustration over slow progress in the peace negotiations. But with the volatile turn of events, reports said the Palestinian Authority tried to restore order.

On Tuesday, clashes continued in Ramallah and several West Bank towns, but the violence was less intense than the day before.

Tuesday's confrontations took place as U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross returned to the region and held meetings with both sides in an effort to restore calm and help move peace talks forward.

The already troubled talks appeared to have hit another glitch, with reports that the chief Palestinian negotiator, Yasser Abed Rabbo, had tendered his resignation to Arafat, in anger over his exclusion from back-channel talks Israel and the Palestinians held in Stockholm this week.

Monday's violence came as the Israeli cabinet and Knesset approved a proposal to transfer the Arab villages of Abu Dis, Al-Azariya and Sawahara outside Jerusalem to total Palestinian self-rule.

Right-wing legislators oppose the idea, saying it will jeopardize the future of Jerusalem. But Barak urged legislators during Monday's stormy Knesset session to remember that "Jerusalem did not fall because Abu Dis was not part of it."

The cabinet voted 15-6 for the proposal, which Barak described as necessary to prevent "stalemate and deterioration" in the negotiations. Barak wants the areas handed over in order to persuade the Palestinians to delay a third Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and instead focus on a final peace agreement.

The United States welcomed the decision.

"As for this particular step, we of course welcome it as part of the implementation of the understandings and the agreements between Israelis and the Palestinians," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

At the cabinet meeting, Barak assured the ministers that the handover of the villages would not change the status of Jerusalem in any way.

"We are in the midst of a diplomatic process whose goal is to strengthen Israel and its security. In any future settlement, Jerusalem will remain united as Israel's eternal capital. They [the Palestinians] will be in Abu Dis and we will be in united Jerusalem," declared Barak, who further explained that he has no interest in annexing 30,000 Palestinians to Jerusalem.

When Likud leader Sharon took to the Knesset podium to respond to Barak, he referred to reports that Palestinian police were shooting at IDF troops near Ramallah.

"When you give Abu Dis, they [the Palestinians] can shoot from rooftops also at Jerusalem neighborhoods," Sharon said. "That is what you consider separation."

The cabinet decision sparked a coalition crisis, with the hawkish National Religious Party announcing it is was pulling out of the coalition.

"From now, the National Religious Party will act to bring down the government. It will be in the opposition," said Housing Minister Yitzhak Levy, who announced after the vote he was suspending his participation in the government pending a formal party decision to quit the coalition.

The departure of the five-member NRP faction came as no surprise, since the party, a founder and champion of Jewish settlements, has long protested that Barak's peace policies went against its ideals.

But the development raised the stakes regarding the future of two other coalition partners, the fervently religious Shas Party and the conservative Yisrael Ba'Aliyah immigrant rights party. A departure by either faction would leave Barak's government, which until now held 68 seats in the 120-member Knesset, without a parliamentary majority.

Both Shas and Yisrael Ba'Aliyah refrained from taking a clear stand Monday, and the motion passed the Knesset 56-48 with backing from moderate opposition and Arab parties.

Barak said the handover of the Arab villages would be delayed due to Monday's violence.

"We decided to present the proposal for confirmation but we will delay the execution of the transfer itself until the reasons for today's violence are clarified," he told the Knesset.

On Wednesday, the Knesset gave preliminary approval to two bills that may make it harder for Barak to pursue his peace policies.

Of the proposed legislation, one bars Palestinian refugees from returning to Israel under any future peace agreement. The other prohibits any changes in the status of Jerusalem without the support of 61 legislators.

The bills passed the first of three required votes with support from members of Barak's coalition.