While Palestinian leaders attempted over the weekend to calm tensions in the wake of last Friday’s bloody rioting in the Gaza Strip, Israeli officials offered restrained reactions, careful to avoid any appearance of interference.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said flatly that Israel would not intervene in what he described as a matter best left for the Palestinians to work out for themselves.
“I propose we leave it to the Palestinians to deal with their internal matters,” he told Army Radio from the United States, where he was on an official visit since the middle of last week.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres echoed this view. “The current struggle between the (Palestine Liberation Organization) and Hamas and the Islamic Jihad is an internal Palestinian issue,” he told Army Radio. “We must be very cautious and not create the impression that Israel is involved.”
Peres instead stressed the economic problems facing Gaza, noting that pledges of financial support from foreign donor nations have failed to materialize. As a result, he said, the Palestinian leadership has been hampered in its attempts to improve the lot of the average Gazan.
At its weekly meeting Sunday, the Cabinet was briefed on last Friday’s violence in Gaza, the worst outbreak of Palestinian infighting since the start of self- rule in May.
The violence, which left 12 Palestinians dead and about 250 injured, was sparked by clashed between the Palestinian police and followers of rejectionist fundamentalist movements who had fathered outside Gaza City’s main mosque. Each side has blamed the other for starting the fighting.
The Cabinet on Sunday was also briefed by the Israel Defense Force chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, about a Saturday night terrorist attack near the Israeli settlement of Netzarim in Gaza, where an Israeli soldier was killed – the fourth in less than two weeks at the site.
Barak told the ministers about a demonstration by some 300 Hamas supporters who overtook an army checkpoint near Netzarim and raised a Palestinian flag after destroying the post.
Following standing orders, the soldiers fled the checkpoint under a hail of stones thrown by the demonstrators.
Staff Sgt. Gil Sadon, 26, of Tel Aviv, was later killed at the site, when a speeding car with Gaza license plates opened fire on the army post. It was the same post where, on Nov. 11, a terrorist rode up on a bicycle and exploded a bomb that claimed the lives of three other Israeli soldiers.
Sadon was buried in Tel Aviv on Sunday.
Barak criticized the Palestinian police for not doing enough to prevent the rioting at the army post, but Economics Minister Shimon Shetreet said ensuring the safety of Israeli civilians in Gaza was not the Palestinians’ responsibility.
Peres and Environment Minister Yossi Sarid expressed support for the IDF’s decision to order the soldiers to abandon their post temporarily. Peres, who is acting prime minister while Rabin is in the United States, said the evacuation prevented large-scale bloodshed.
The Likud party caucus in the Knesset, meanwhile, said that responsibility for the events at the Netzarim army post lies with the Israeli government.
Moshe Katsav, Likud caucus chairman, said that further implementation of the self-rule accord should be suspended until PLO leader Yasser Arafat got full control of the situation in Gaza.
The leader of the right-wing Tsomet Party, Rafael Eitan, called the standing IDF orders that required soldiers to flee the outpost at Netzarim an “incomparable disgrace.”
Arafat, who held meetings with his aides in Gaza over the weekend to discuss the situation in the wake of the bloody confrontation, later announced that he would appoint an official committee to look into the causes of the violence.
Arafat invited members of Hamas to join the investigative committee, but on Sunday leaders of the movement demanded that several top officials in the Palestinian Authority first be dismissed.
In a statement, Hamas officials blamed the violence on the Palestinian police and threatened revenge.
The Palestinian Authority in turn accused some Palestinian elements of attempting to incite a civil war and promised to take all measures necessary to ease the tension.
The severity of last Friday’s clashes left the Palestinian community in a state of shock.
On Saturday, the Arab newspaper An-Nahar ran a banner headline that proclaimed, “No to civil war.”