JERUSALEM (Aug. 26)
While describing the situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as very tense, the Israel Defense Force chief of staff does not think an “explosion” in the territories is imminent.
“It seems the sides are waiting for the pending visit of the U.S. secretary of state,” Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak told reporters after appearing Tuesday before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
“However, there is no doubt that there is tension and an accumulation of resentment and pressures in the territories, creating a reality which could lead to an explosion.”
Shahak’s remarks came as unrest continued in the West Bank town of Bethlehem for a third straight day.
Palestinian sources said six demonstrators were injured in clashes with Israeli security forces during protests against the closure that Israel imposed after a July 30 terrorist attack in Jerusalem killed 14 Israelis.
Israeli officials claim that leading Islamic militants are in hiding in Bethlehem, which has been encircled with roadblocks to prevent their escape.
During Tuesday’s protests, Palestinian youths threw rocks at Israeli security forces, who responded with rubber bullets and tear gas.
A number of schoolgirls suffered from tear gas inhalation after canisters fired by the troops landed in their schoolyard, according to news reports.
On Monday, the tensions in Bethlehem threatened to escalate when Palestinian police, who stood by while the youths threw stones, leveled their weapons at Israeli forces.
No shots were fired, and the situation was defused.
After U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross visited the region earlier this month, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright indicated that she would soon travel to the Middle East.
But her trip is conditioned on improved security ties between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
On Tuesday, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat said he believed that those ties had improved to the extent that Albright should make the visit.
Asked by reporters whether there was enough security cooperation for Albright to visit, Arafat was quoted as responding, “Definitely, and we have a witness, an American witness.”
Representatives from the CIA have been taking part in contacts between Israeli and Palestinian security officials that were arranged during Ross’ visit.
Israel has demanded that Arafat crack down on Islamic militants as a precondition to a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Arafat has so far refused, saying he would not accept Israeli “dictates.”
Last week, Arafat held two days of “national unity” talks that included leaders of the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements.
During those talks, according to an aide to Arafat, the Palestinian Authority asked Hamas to halt attacks against Israeli targets.
Hamas issued a statement Tuesday rejecting the request, saying it viewed armed struggle as a legitimate expression of its resistance to the Israeli- Palestinian accords.