Nine killed in clashes throughout West Bank; helicopters fire on villages

Friday, October 20th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NABLUS, West Bank (AP) _ Defying an Israeli deadline for a truce, Palestinian gunmen and rock-throwers attacked Israeli soldiers at West Bank friction points on Friday. The Israelis returned fire, killing nine Palestinians in the deadliest day of fighting in two weeks.

The clashes, in which Israeli tanks and combat helicopters also fired on Palestinian positions near Jerusalem and Bethlehem, all but destroyed hopes that a cease-fire declared at an emergency Mideast summit earlier this week would hold.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak, speaking after the passing of a 4 p.m. deadline set by Israel for an end to the violence, indicated Israel would wait and see what happens at an Arab League summit this weekend, then decide if it would continue with the peace process.

After the summit, he said, if it appears that the violence is continuing, ``we will take time out to re-evaluate the situation of the peace process,'' Barak said on Israeli TV. He said Israel would take ``as much time as is needed to evaluate the situation.''

In Friday's worst clash, south of the West Bank town of Nablus, gunmen hiding behind olive trees opened fire on Israeli soldiers just moments after the deadline expired. Israeli soldiers returned fire, and four Palestinians were killed.

Two Palestinians, ages 13 and 17, were killed by Israeli fire in rock-throwing clashes in the West Bank town of Ramallah and the village of Salfit. Both were killed by shots to the head. In other deaths, a 16-year-old stone-thrower was killed in the town of Qalqiliya, a 21-year-old in Jenin, and another 16-year-old in the town of Tulkarem, bringing the day's death toll to nine.

The fighting also reached the outskirts of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Israeli combat helicopters fired on the village of Beit Sahour, next to Bethlehem, in response to Palestinian fire, the army said.

Israeli tanks also fired at Palestinian positions in the nearby Arab village of Beit Jala after gunmen there fired on the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo, built on land captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, police said. No casualties were immediately reported.

President Clinton had hoped that a truce would take hold before the weekend and eventually pave the way for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But Friday's gun battles quelled hopes that the three-week-old fighting would end soon. The violence has left 113 people dead, the vast majority Palestinians.

Israel has said its troops have shown great restraint, while the Palestinians have accused Israeli soldiers of using excessive force. In addition to those killed, hundreds of Palestinians have been injured.

A government spokesman, Avi Pazner, blamed the violence on Arafat's Palestinian Authority, which he said had encouraged rioters in the streets.

``We see that the incidents are getting worse as a direct result of the behavior of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority,'' Pazner said.

Barak held an unscheduled meeting with Likud opposition leader Ariel Sharon, who has repeatedly said he would reject participating in an emergency unity government. Entering the meeting, Barak said he thought the chances now of a unity government were ``very good, but it takes two.''

``The people need this, the nation needs this,'' he said.

The commander of Israeli forces in the West Bank, Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Eitan, said earlier Friday that Israeli soldiers would respond with force to cease-fire violations, especially by the Tanzim militiamen linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.

``If the Palestinians won't stop the Tanzim movement from shooting at our forces, we will not have any choice but to shoot back,'' he said.

The violence came on the eve of the Arab summit in Cairo, a gathering Arafat has sought as a show of broad support for the Palestinian cause. Israeli officials have accused Arafat of orchestrating the violence to improve his standing in the eyes of Arab leaders leading up to the summit.

At the Mideast emergency summit earlier this week, Israel and the Palestinians had agreed that there would be a two-day transition period leading to a cease-fire.

Israel initially did not set a specific deadline, but Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami announced Friday that Israel expected the truce to take hold by 4 p.m.

``We don't care about the deadline,'' said Teissir Natche, 17, a stone thrower in Hebron. ``We just want a Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital.''

Moments after the deadline passed, the gunfire began.

In Ramallah, some 2,000 demonstrators marched toward an Israeli checkpoint, unleashing a barrage of stones at troops there. Within minutes, about 20 Palestinians were injured by Israeli rubber bullets.

Groups of rioters overturned burned car wrecks again and again, using them as cover to approach the Israeli positions. One Palestinian teen-ager who had taken cover behind a wreck was struck in the head by a live bullet that killed him instantly. Soldiers continued shooting as other Palestinians tried to evacuate the body.

In a moment of lull, a young rioter crouched behind one of the wrecks to adjust his green headband which signals support for the Islamic militant group Hamas.