Tenuous post-Camp David quiet bursts in West Bank

JERUSALEM — The relative calm between Israelis and Palestinians on the West Bank that followed the collapse of the Camp David talks shattered this week.

A flashpoint, again, was in Hebron, where 400 Jews live in the heart of the Palestinian-controlled West Bank town.

Tensions there escalated on Saturday, resulting in 10 people with slight injuries due to a clash between settlers and Palestinians.

Seven Palestinians and three settlers were arrested.

The clashes broke out after a car driven by a Palestinian hit a Jewish boy at an intersection close to Hebron's Jewish Quarter, injuring him slightly. The Palestinian driver escaped.

Although the army said the boy was not hit deliberately, dozens of settlers came down to the accident scene and began fistfights with Palestinians. The settlers also rampaged through the Arab marketplace, overturning stalls.

Large police and army forces rushed to separate them. The army later issued a statement blaming the settlers for the incident.

The settlers, on the other hand, claimed that it was their right to react following repeated attempts by Palestinians to hurt Jewish settlers, particularly assaults on Jewish women.

In a separate incident, Israeli soldiers killed a 73-year-old Palestinian near Ramallah on Aug. 16 after the man opened fire at an Israel Defense Force unit in search of terror suspects.

Also, a Palestinian boy was killed Sunday in the southern West Bank when he stepped on unexploded ammunition — apparently a grenade — close to a former Israeli army firing range. An Israeli human rights group criticized the army for leaving behind live ammunition after holding military exercises.

Although emotions in Hebron had calmed by midweek, the tension illustrates how the situation could deteriorate in the territories despite attempts by Jews and Palestinians to keep the situation under control.

Columnist Haim Hanegbi wrote last weekend in the Israeli paper Ma'ariv that now was the time to evacuate the Jewish community out of Hebron.

"If there is a bloodbath in Hebron and death will burst out of the city and spread throughout the country, none of us will be able to blame only the Jewish extremists," wrote Hanegbi.

"It is the government which is responsible for everything that the armed settlers are doing in that hard city. I write Hebron and I think Jerusalem. I am fearful that a handful of settlers will be able to drag us all into a new blood adventure."

Hawkish columnist — and former right-wing politician — Geula Cohen agreed. She reached a totally different conclusion, though, saying the settler's situation should convince Barak not to hand over the territories to the Palestinians.

"Leaving 50,000 settlers in the area allocated to the Palestinian Authority is the real time bomb. Anyone who does not want to ignore reality can already smell the gunpowder, which can burn down the entire country."

In the meantime, the Palestinian Authority continued to take measures to suppress violence, with the hope that an agreement was still possible.

Israeli policymakers openly gave the Palestinian Authority credit for having prevented acts of terrorism. However, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli army's chief of staff, warned last weekend that terrorist attempts would continue.

The defense establishment received specific alerts on planned attempts by Muslim radicals to launch terrorist attacks inside Israel proper, with the specific purpose of derailing the peace process.

Mofaz said Hezbollah would try to kidnap soldiers and civilians in the north — and that Hamas and the Islamic Jihad would try to kidnap soldiers as hostages in their demand for the release of security prisoners.

However, despite efforts to prevent violence, tensions in the West Bank are growing. Observers are viewing the growing sentiment that there is little chance Israel and the Palestinians will reach an agreement in the foreseeable future as the main reason for Palestinian discontent.

The Palestinian cabinet insisted over the weekend there would be no compromise with Israel on the key issue of Jerusalem. It was a statement that was timed to coincide with U.S. envoy Dennis Ross's efforts to revive Middle East peace talks.

The fragility of the situation was illustrated in the incident in which the elderly Palestinian was killed.

Israeli soldiers arrived in a village near Ramallah early Aug. 16 to detain terror suspects. Mahmoud Abdullah, 72, slept on the roof, as many Palestinians do during the summer. He woke up to the noises of the soldiers. Suspecting a theft attempt, he fired his gun. The soldiers fired back, killing the old man.

Abdullah, who had lived in the U.S. Virgin Islands for 20 years, was an uncle of Hassam Abdel Rahman, the Palestinian Liberation Organization's representative in the United States, relatives said. He was also the father of Hisham Abdullah, a veteran journalist with the Agence France-Presse news agency.

Although the army later acknowledged that it was a tragic misunderstanding, it insisted that the soldiers had acted "according to standard regulations," because they suspected that terrorists were attacking them.

Some analysts say the incident demonstrates that Israel should not only ask Palestinians to take care of their own security, but leave them alone to do so.

"What have we signed the agreements with the Palestinians for?" wrote analyst Danny Rubinstein in Ha'aretz.

"This should be left to the security agencies of Arafat who prevent terrorist attacks, and are in excellent control of the territories," he continued.

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