With only days left before a July 1 target date for Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to conclude an agreement on the next phase of Palestinian self- rule, violent clashes are threatening to torpedo the process.
But Israeli and Palestinian leaders are persisting in their efforts not to let the violence block their negotiations.
One Palestinian student was shot dead, two others were seriously wounded and dozens more were slightly hurt in a major clash with Israeli soldiers and police in Nablus Sunday.
The violent protest erupted in support of an ongoing hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Similar clashes, though without reported fatalities, broke out in Ramallah and East Jerusalem over the weekend.
The soldiers opened fire with rubber bullets and live ammunition when the students, from Nablus’ al-Najah University, marched on the town’s main prison and refused orders to disperse.
Also on Sunday, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the Gaza Strip just after an Israeli army vehicle had passed him. The three soldiers on the vehicle were slightly injured.
But despite the weekend violence, Israel and the Palestinian Authority continued their negotiations.
With the prisoners’ hunger strike spreading from jail to jail over the past week, the prisoner issue was believed to have topped the agenda of talks between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in Gaza on Sunday.
The meeting took place just hours after the violent clashes in Nablus.
The Palestinian Authority is demanding a large-scale release of prisoners in the context of the second-phase agreement currently under negotiation.
Peres said after the meeting with Arafat that the Israeli ministerial committee on prisoner release would convene before the end of the week to discuss the issue.
The only specific commitment that Peres gave was that 10 women prisoners would be freed shortly.
Under the terms of the Cairo Agreement singed by Israel and the PLO in May 1994, Israel released some 5,000 of the 10,000 prisoners it held at the time.
An estimated 6,000 prisoners remain in jails in Israel and the West Bank. Some 3,000 of them belong to the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement; about 2,500 belong to Al Fatah, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s mainstream group; and the rest belong to smaller factions.
About 2,000 prisoners are reportedly participating in the hunger strike, which is entering its second week.
On Sunday, a member of the ministerial committee, Police Minister Moshe Shahal, said each prisoner case would be reviewed – with the goal of releasing prisoners — “without blood on their hands” — who were sick, old, or had served most of their sentence.
Political observers here predicted that many hundreds of prisoners would be freed if the second phase of the self-rule agreement was concluded.
Negotiators are struggling to reach agreement on this next phase, which is supposed to include a redeployment of Israeli troops on the West Bank, which would be followed by Palestinian elections.
Peres and Arafat shared little information with the media after their meeting on Sunday. Peres called the session “positive” and Arafat dubbed it “constructive.”
Both said some progress had been made, and some issues remained unresolved.
Among the unresolved issues, according to Palestinian sources, is the extent of the proposed Israel Defense Force redeployment out of major Palestinian population centers in the West Bank.
Israel is still proposing an initial pullout from four towns: Nablus, Kalkilya, Jenin and Tulkarem, according to these sources.
The Palestinians, however, are still demanding that Ramallah and Bethlehem be included.
But Israel says its alternative infrastructure of roads is not yet in place around these two key cities, which are located north and south, respectively, of Jerusalem.
Israeli officials say Ramallah and Bethlehem would be part of a `further redeployment,’ which would take place after the elections, which are targeted for November.
The Palestinian Authority is demanding that Israel commit to a binding timetable for such further redeployment.
Israeli sources said that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is likely to meet with Arafat before the July 1 target date in an effort to bridge the gaps enough to enable the signing of an agreement on or about the target date.