JERUSALEM, Dec. 4 (JTA) – Another flare-up of violence early this week has threatened efforts to bring an end to more than two months of clashes.
In a three-hour battle Monday, Palestinian gunmen attacked Rachel’s Tomb, a Jewish holy site under Israeli guard at the entrance to the West Bank city of Bethlehem. In response, Israeli helicopter gunships targeted a Palestinian position near a refugee camp, from which heavy fire had been directed at Israeli troops at the tomb.
Israel Defense Force officials said the Palestinians, who launched a coordinated attack on the shrine from three directions, were trying to take over the tomb, considered the burial site of the biblical matriarch.
Israeli control of the site is guaranteed by various agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but since the recent violence began Palestinian officials have demanded that Israel evacuate the site. Mindful of the way that Joseph’s Tomb near Nablus was trashed as soon as Israeli troops evacuated in October, Israel has refused.
An army spokesman described Monday’s incident as one of the most “dangerous” events since the Palestinian violence began in late September.
Palestinian officials said the fighting broke out after soldiers and Jewish settlers attacked Muslim worshipers in the nearby village of Hussan, wounding at least 25 people. The IDF denied the charge.
Also Monday, a member of the fundamentalist Hamas group whom the Palestinian Authority recently freed from jail along with dozens of other militants blew himself up in the Gaza Strip, apparently while preparing a bombfor use against a nearby Jewish settlement.
Monday’s clashes prompted Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to repeat his call for an international peacekeeping force to be sent to the region. Arafat also accused Israel of breaking pledges to try to end the violence.
“It was a shock. We had agreed to cool it down,” Arafat told reporters in Gaza City.
Reviewing an honor guard after his return Monday from Qatar, Arafat carried a submachine gun.
He said he was carrying the weapon because a main Gaza Strip road that he was traveling on was blocked by dozens of Jewish settlers protesting Israel’s decision to reopen the artery to Palestinian traffic. The road had been closed to Palestinians following the bombing of an Israeli school bus two weeks ago in which two people were killed and nine wounded.
Israeli security officials denied Arafat’s claim, saying the settlers were cleared from the road before Arafat’s convoy came through.
In other violence Monday, the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo again came under fire from the nearby Arab town of Beit Jalla. There wereno reports of injuries, but one apartment was damaged.
And an Israeli was lightly wounded in a shooting attack near the Jewish city of Ariel in the West Bank. There were several other shooting incidents inthe area Monday, but no reports of Israeli or Palestinian fatalities.
Israel this week said it would cooperate with a U.S.-led fact-finding panel probing the causes of the violence. To date, nearly 300 Palestinians and35 Israelis have died since the unrest began two months ago.
During a telephone call last Friday, Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Clinton discussed the panel, whose members are due to arrive in the Middle East later this month.
On Sunday, Barak said there is no new U.S. plan to end the violence and revive peace talks.
Dismissing reports that he had rejected a U.S. offer to mediate the crisis, Barak also lashed out at Labor Party members, whom he accused of pressuring him to try to reach an agreement with the Palestinians before the end of President Clinton’s term on Jan. 20.
Barak last week agreed to early elections in the face of broad Knesset backing for such a move.
With Barak lagging in public opinion polls, it is widely believed that his main hope for re-election rests on clinching a deal with the Palestinians. But the prime minister appeared downbeat about the prospects for reaching an accord in the near future.
The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that Barak put the chances of reaching a peace deal before the end of Clinton’s term at just 10 percent.
Meanwhile, the Knesset on Monday gave preliminary approval to a bill that would prevent a prime minister who lacks a parliamentary majority, such as Barak, from signing international agreements.