Mideast violence worsens; death toll clims as Israel employs heavy weapons

Monday, October 2nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

RAMALLAH, West Bank – The Israeli army unleashed anti-tank missiles and combat helicopters in an effort to quell Palestinian rioting and gunbattles Sunday as the violence spread from the West Bank and Gaza Strip to the towns and cities of Israel.

The fourth day of fighting killed at least nine Palestinians, bringing to 29 the number killed since Thursday. More than 700 have been wounded.

Also killed Sunday was a 19-year-old Israeli border policeman, who lay badly wounded for hours in the West Bank town of Nablus as Palestinian gunfire kept rescuers from reaching him. He was finally rescued but died Sunday night.

As Israeli tanks rumbled into position around Palestinian cities, Israeli and Palestinian leaders blamed each other for the violence.

Israel's top negotiator, acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, accused Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority of orchestrating the violence to exert pressure on Israel and extract concessions in the stalled peace negotiations.

His Palestinian counterpart, Ahmed Qureia, accused Israel of intensifying the violence and "committing crimes against our defenseless people."

U.S. diplomats were working with both sides to try to rescue the stalled negotiations, but with time already running short – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak faces an opposition threat to topple him this month – prospects looked grim.

"We are urging both sides to exercise maximum restraint and put an end to the violence," said P.J. Crowley, spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council.

Later Sunday, the White House said that Israeli and Palestinian leaders have agreed to a U.S.-mediated session aimed at rooting out causes of the violence that has plagued the region.

The clashes were triggered by a visit Thursday by the leader of Israel's hawkish opposition, Ariel Sharon, to a contested Jerusalem shrine, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram as-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary.

The disputed hilltop was once the home of the biblical Jewish Temple, the most sacred shrine of Judaism. It now houses two major mosques that mark the spot where tradition says the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. The walled compound is Islam's third-holiest site.

Palestinians said Mr. Sharon's visit was a provocation because it was intended to show Israeli sovereignty. The dispute over who will control the compound is the main obstacle to a peace agreement.

Mr. Sharon on Sunday denied he was responsible for the violence.

"The riots are part of Arafat's policy of applying pressure on Israel and the Americans when he doesn't get what he wants," Mr. Sharon said.

Meanwhile, Israel brought its military might to bear on a widening Palestinian rebellion. Helicopter gunships opened fire on Palestinian forces near the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in the Gaza Strip and at Joseph's Tomb, the site of a small Jewish enclave outside the West Bank city of Nablus.

The rioting and crossfire also spread Sunday to Arab towns and cities in northern Israel's Galilee region; to Jaffa, the scenic old port town just south of Tel Aviv; to Rafah on Gaza's border with Egypt, where a pitched gunbattle was punctuated by Israeli missile fire; and to Ramat Rachel, an upscale kibbutz on Jerusalem's southern outskirts, where Molotov cocktails exploded Sunday evening.

As Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank buried their dead from Saturday's clashes, many said they were waging a holy war for Jerusalem and for the right to establish an independent Palestinian state. The Camp David peace talks broke down this summer over Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its eternal undivided capital and part of which the Palestinians want as their state's capital.

"Each rock is a message to Israel that we, the Palestinian people, are alive," said a Palestinian youth in Ramallah, his left arm bandaged from a bullet wound sustained Saturday. "God willing, everyone with a rock will soon have a rifle."

The Israelis' intensifying use of live ammunition and heavy weapons marked an escalation in violence. Coupled with the mounting Palestinian casualties, it prompted Mohammed Dahlan, Palestinian chief of security for Gaza, to call the Israeli army chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, a "war criminal."

The Israelis insisted their troops had exercised restraint and accused the Palestinians of orchestrating a campaign of spreading violence for political gain. But they faced a growing outcry, prompted partly by television footage showing a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, Mohammed Jamal Aldura, being shot to death Saturday, apparently by Israeli forces, as he cowered behind a concrete block with his father in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli Cabinet Secretary Yitzhak Herzog said Sunday night it still wasn't known who had fired the fatal shots.

The army released a statement saying it would look into the incident and expressing regret for the loss of life, but it accused Palestinians of "making cynical use of children and women by bringing them to flashpoints."

Meanwhile, the boy was mourned Sunday in the teeming Gaza Strip refugee camp where he spent his short life.

"I was always afraid something like this would happen to him," Mohammed's 34-year-old mother, Amal, said at the family home in the Bureij refugee camp. "To those who did it I say: I wish you may burn."

The boy's father, Jamal Aldura, a 37-year-old laborer, remained in a Gaza hospital recovering from bullet wounds to both legs, one arm and his midsection.

In Jerusalem, there were scattered stone-throwing clashes Sunday. An Israeli police officer was injured when a Palestinian motorist drove into a group of officers standing by the side of a road.

The Los Angeles Times, Associated Press and Washington Post contributed to this report.