News Analysis: Palestinian Violence in Hebron Erupts Amid Peace Process Void

With the peace process at a standstill, Palestinians have brought their anger to the streets.

After several months of quiet in the West Bank town of Hebron, Palestinian youths threw rocks and gasoline bombs at Israeli soldiers and settlers for several days this week.

The violence in the City of the Patriarchs was regarded by Israeli security experts as a clear message from the Palestinians that they were losing patience with the present deadlock in the peace negotiations.

But what specifically provoked the Palestinian violence in Hebron was not clear.

The unrest began just days after the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution calling on President Clinton to reaffirm that Jerusalem must remain the undivided capital of Israel.

In a separate measure, the House authorized $100 million to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move President Clinton has vowed to delay until Israel and the Palestinians reach an agreement on the city’s final status.

Palestinian officials said the House actions harmed U.S. credibility as a mediator in the region. The Palestinians want the eastern portion of Jerusalem, which Israel captured in 1967, as the capital of a future independent state.

A week before the House actions, Israeli media reported that Netanyahu was envisioning a permanent settlement with the Palestinians in which Israel would retain control over 40 percent of the West Bank, a move that also prompted sharp Palestinian criticism.

This week’s unrest in Hebron also came as a mediation effort launched recently by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s top political aide, Osama Al-Baz, showed no signs of progress.

After the two sides met last week in Cairo for the first time in three months, his efforts to arrange a follow-up meeting of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators proved to be futile.

American officials, for the time being at least, have stepped back from the two parties, urging them to find common ground.

But with the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in a state of suspension, that common ground appeared elusive indeed.

The peace talks, along with most security cooperation between the two sides, came to a halt after Israel broke ground in mid-March for Jewish housing at Har Homa in southeastern Jerusalem and after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed three Israelis at a Tel Aviv cafe.

Israel accused the Palestinian Authority of fueling this week’s violence as an attempt to gain political concessions from the Jewish state.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quoted Sunday as saying it was clear that the unrest was organized by Palestinian officials and was not spontaneous.

He added that violence against Israel would not lead to any concessions, and he called on the Palestinians to work issues out through dialogue.

In Hebron, Israeli commanders ordered their soldiers to show restraint to prevent Palestinian fatalities. Several dozen Palestinians were wounded in the confrontations, but as long as no one was killed the situation was considered under control.

It was clear to both sides that if blood were spilled in Hebron, the entire situation in the territories could get out of hand.

But as Israeli soldiers fought back the youthful demonstrators with rubber bullets, the Palestinian police were doing little to quell passions.

After several days of violence, it appeared likely that there was no Palestinian interest in stopping the confrontations.

On the contrary, Israeli policy makers were convinced that the Palestinian leadership was behind the latest unrest, making good on its threat that the deadlocked negotiations could only lead to bloodshed.

Following similar clashes last week between Palestinians and the Israeli army near the Gush Katif settlement bloc in the Gaza Strip, Ahmed Karia, the chairman of the Palestinian Legislative Council, warned that “an explosion is soon likely to take place, and not only in Gaza.”

Indeed, the violence near Gush Katif, which began after residents of the Jewish settlement of Morag fenced off territory that local Palestinians claimed as their own, soon spread.

An Israeli woman was wounded over the weekend when her car was fired on as she was driving near Jerusalem. Israeli security forces arrested six Palestinians from the nearby village of Bidu in connection with the shooting.

Then came the rioting in Hebron.

The situation there was considered particularly delicate, given the fact that Palestinians and Jewish settlers live in close proximity to each other.

Palestinian youths repeatedly ventured out of the part of the city that is under the control of the Palestinian Authority to confront the Jewish residents of Hebron and the soldiers guarding them.

The soldiers chased the youths back to the border separating Jewish and Arab Hebron, but could go no farther. The Palestinian youths, well aware of this, repeatedly escaped back behind the border.

Unlike during past confrontations, there was no cooperation between Israeli units in Hebron and Palestinian police commanders.

“The riots are not incidental,” a senior Israeli army officer said in an interview. “Someone is organizing the unrest.”

Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat denied at a meeting with former Prime Minister Shimon Peres in the West Bank town of Ramallah that the Palestinian Authority had anything to do with the violence.

Despite Arafat’s assurances, political observers believe that he is maneuvering between grassroots pressures and the need to court world public opinion.

While attempting to respond to Palestinian anger over the deadlocked negotiations, Arafat is also aware that world public opinion has recently been running against the Palestinian Authority in the wake of the murders of Arab land dealers and the disclosures of widespread financial irregularities in the self-rule government.

Meanwhile, the Israeli commander in Hebron, known only as Col. Gadi, said that the riots in Hebron were under control.

“Undoubtedly, events in Hebron could escalate,” he added. “But we hope that spirits cool off.”

Some Israeli security experts believed that the violent confrontations would continue as long as there was no breakthrough in the negotiations.

Karia’s warnings of spreading violence were echoed this week by an Israeli military expert, Reserve Col. Oren Shahor, who served until recently as coordinator of government activities in the territories.

Shahor warned in his first television interview as a civilian that a general flareup would not be limited to the territories, saying that the “winds of war” could spread to Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

“Israel will then have to face the Palestinians from a much weaker position than today,” he said.

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