Scuffles in Jerusalem as Israel-Palestinian truce faces a key test

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

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Baton-wielding Israeli riot police scuffled with angry Muslim worshippers outside a major Jerusalem mosque on Friday, a day that brought a crucial test for a U.S.-brokered cease-fire teetering from a bloody West Bank gunbattle.

With a key deadline looming, President Clinton called the Israeli and Palestinian leaders trying to get them to stick to the truce's provisions after it was shaken by the fighting Thursday outside Nablus, which killed a Palestinian and an Israeli settler.

The two sides had agreed at a summit this week in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, to assess on Friday whether the cease-fire was holding. In the wake of Thursday's bloodshed, Israeli officials had warned of increased force if violence wasn't stopped in time.

But Israeli officials said Friday that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's timeframe was flexible, depending on developments.

In Jerusalem, Israeli police limited access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque for weekly Muslim prayers on Friday. It was at that flashpoint site, holy to Muslims and Jews, that riots broke out Sept. 28 and spread quickly. At least 104 people, most of them Palestinians, have died in three weeks of clashes.

Only men over 40 and women were permitted to enter the mosque area for Friday prayers. Police cited intelligence reports that younger Palestinians planned to riot after the services.

Israeli riot police blocked several alleyways leading to the mosque. Just inside the walled Old City's Damascus Gate, police swung clubs to keep back a large crowd of worshippers. One policeman charged toward a Palestinian in a white robe and prayer cap who tried to shield himself from a blow.

Tempers were high after the five-hour gunbattle Thursday between Israeli troops and Palestinians on a mountain overlooking Nablus. The fighting was sparked when a group of Israeli settlers visited the mountain, saying they wanted to look from afar at Joseph's Tomb, a Jewish holy site abandoned by Israeli forces during the rioting and then ransacked by Palestinians.

Both sides blamed the other for the battle. The Israelis said Palestinian gunmen opened fire on the settlers unprovoked, while the Palestinians said the settlers had shot at unarmed olive pickers.

The Palestinian fire pinned the hikers down for five hours, while Israeli soldiers and attack helicopters returned the fire. Rabbi Binyamin Erling, 64, bled to death from his wounds. Three Israelis and 15 Palestinians were wounded in the gunfire. Television pictures showed the Palestinians firing anti-aircraft guns at the helicopters, a first for this conflict.

Barak called the Palestinian gunfire at the settlers a ``flagrant violation'' of the Sharm el-Sheik understandings.

Israeli Cabinet minister Haim Ramon warned that if the Palestinian attacks do not cease, Israel will respond with force, ``and the Sharm el-Sheik understandings will collapse completely.''

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Cabinet, meeting in Gaza late Thursday, blamed Israel for the continuing violence, saying it was not stopping settlers from firing at civilians.

After a late-night meeting, settler leaders urged their constituents not to exact revenge for the Palestinian attack. In a statement, they called on Barak to resign because of ``abandonment of ... the settlers at Mount Ebal'' _ the hill where the fighting took place.

Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Eitan, the senior Israeli commander in the area, admitted it had been a ``grave error'' for the regional command to give permission for the settlers' tour, despite an overall ban on such excursions because of the riots.

Palestinians who live across from the hill said they fled their houses after the Israelis warned that the helicopters were about to open fire. They said about 70 homes were evacuated. One family with 10 children spent the night in a shop.

Fakhri Swakat, 30, said an Israeli machinegun bullet started a small fire in his living room. He took his wife and children to the second floor while neighbors put out the fire, he said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who played a leading mediating role ahead of the Egypt summit, said the next 24 hours were crucial for the cease-fire. ``Whether we like it or not, in the end, there has to be peace,'' Annan told reporters in New York.

Under the Sharm el-Sheik understandings, if the truce is seen Friday to be holding, the two sides were to start a two-week recovery program aimed at reviving negotiations on a comprehensive peace settlement.

Ideally, the Israelis are to pull back troops from the outskirts of Palestinian cities, security teams from the two sides are expected to hold additional talks, and the Palestinians are to continue working to rein in militants.