News Analysis: Escalating Violence in West Bank Sparks Fears of a New Intifada

Fears of a new intifada rocked the region this week amid the fiercest Israeli-Palestinian violence in years.

Wednesday’s violence, which left at least three Palestinians dead and at least 10 Israeli soldiers wounded, came against a backdrop of worsening relations between Israel and the Arab world.

The day’s clashes in Ramallah, along with other demonstrations throughout the West Bank and in eastern Jerusalem, were prompted by Israel’s opening the day before of an ancient tunnel located near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City.

But the larger issue, in Palestinian eyes, was what they viewed as Israel’s attempt to increase its control over Jerusalem.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said he could not accept the “Judaization” of eastern Jerusalem.

There is no more contentious issue for the Israelis and the Palestinians than Jerusalem. The great divide was reaffirmed by the divergent reaction to the tunnel opening.

While Arafat maintained that the tunnel offended the sacredness of the Muslim shrines in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the tunnel enabled Israelis to “touch the bedrock of our heritage.”

The sharp divisions over Jerusalem, and the resulting violence, left the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in doubt.

“Make a note of this date,” one seasoned Israeli commentator said Wednesday in an interview. “This is the day when the intifada resumed.”

In addition to the deaths, as many as 300 Palestinians were wounded, most of them from tear gas and rubber bullets fired by the Israeli troops.

At the height of the incident, Israeli soldiers and Palestinian police were engaged in an intensive firefight.

The violence began as a protest by students. Arafat had called for a nationwide protest strike and for street demonstrations Wednesday against the opening of the tunnel.

Channel Two Television attributed the Ramallah violence to Hamas-affiliated students at nearby Bir Zeit University, saying that they had instigated the clashes between demonstrators and soldiers.

Hamas members who had infiltrated the Palestinian police were the first to open fire on Israel Defense Force troops, according to Channel Two.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak said initial inquiries indicated that Palestinian police officers had begun the firefight.

Beyond Ramallah, disturbances occurred across the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem.

A large Palestinian demonstration passed off with relatively little violence in eastern Jerusalem, though the mufti of the city, Ikram a-Sabri, was injured by a flying bottle as Palestinian protesters clashed with policemen near the Damascus Gate.

As the violence abated somewhat, ministers and senior security officials on both sides were working frantically to restore a modicum of quiet and cooperation.

Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and Arafat spoke by phone Wednesday night and pledged to work to contain the escalating violence in the West Bank.

The Israel Defense Force, meanwhile, was significantly reinforcing its troop deployments in the West Bank.

Arafat’s deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, who is also known as Abu-Mazen, urged both sides to restore calm. “We don’t want to go back to the intifada,” he said.

Netanyahu, in Paris on an official visit, accused the Palestinian Authority of instigating the rioting as a means of pressuring Israel.

“There are clear orders for strikes and for demonstrations,” the premier told Israeli reporters in Paris.

Netanyahu denied that the tunnel impinged in any way on the Islamic holy sites located on the Temple Mount, site of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aksa Mosque.

Netanyahu said repeatedly that the decision to clear the tunnel of rubble and open it to visitors was made by the previous Rabin-Peres government.

By approving the opening, he said, he was “proud to implement my predecessors’ decision.”

Arafat, looking grim and shaken as he met with reporters in Gaza, charged the Israeli government with “escalation against our people, who are protesting against the breaking of the agreements.”

To protest the tunnel’s opening, and the ensuing violence, Arafat canceled a meeting of the Israeli-Palestinian steering committee that had been planned for Thursday.

The festive opening of the tunnel took place Monday night amid intensive security measures in the Old City.

The tunnel extends along the Western Wall for some 800 yards, opening at its southern end into the large Herodian arched halls abutting the Western Wall plaza.

The tunnel is believed to be a largely natural underground crevice, used in Solomonic and Herodian times to bring water to the Temple Mount.

Israel had opened the southern end of the tunnel in 1987. Former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek said Wednesday that Israel’s previous government had postponed opening the northern end out of concern that it would spark a Palestinian uproar.

The timing is “simply not smart,” he said, echoing the view of Labor opposition figures.

Labor leader Shimon Peres told Channel One Television that “we are on the brink of something very bad.”

He said his government had hoped that the Palestinians would not object to the opening of the northern end of the tunnel, in return for Israel not objecting to the Palestinians using the area known as “Solomon’s Stables” under the Temple Mount for prayers.

But he said he would have consulted with the Palestinian Authority before going ahead with the opening.

The tunnel also sparked criticisms throughout the Arab world. Leaders called for an urgent meeting of the Arab League to consider Israel’s action in Jerusalem.

The United States avoided taking sides on the issue. U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns advised the two sides to negotiate on existing differences and not to raise “new issues.”

Wednesday’s violence came against a background of worsening relations this week between Israel and its Arab neighbors:

Israel delivered a strong formal protest to Egypt over statements by senior officials in Cairo disparaging Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan postponed a planned visit to Israel that would have been an important symbol of the peace between the two countries.

Qatar and other Persian Gulf states recently said that they were deliberately slowing the process of normalization with Israel, pending progress in the peace process with the Palestinians and with Syria.

Military tensions with Syria in Lebanon and on the Golan, which rose to worrying levels last week, have not yet entirely eased.

Some Israeli analysts said the rage in the Palestinian Authority and the broader Arab world stemmed not only from the tunnel episode, but from a recent message from Netanyahu’s office to Arafat.

The message, in effect, said Israel was not planning to go ahead with steps called for in the self-rule accords signed by the Palestinians and the previous government, including the “safe passage” arrangements for Palestinians traveling between Gaza and the West Bank and additional redeployments in the West Bank.

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