Violence reminiscent of intifada erupts in West Bank

JERUSALEM — The scenes of violence in West Bank cities this week were widely described, at home and abroad, as reminiscent of the intifada, or uprising.

Israeli troops and border police clashed with stone-throwing Palestinian students on the streets of Ramallah, Nablus and eastern Jerusalem. Three Palestinians were shot dead by the soldiers in Nablus; dozens more were injured in the clashes. And on Israel's northern border, Katyusha rockets launched from Lebanon rained down on vacationing tourists.

In contrast to earlier violence, however, this week's disturbances took place against the backdrop of ongoing peace talks with the Palestinians and Syria.

The West Bank demonstrators took to the streets in solidarity with the 6,000 Palestinians still imprisoned in Israeli jails. They are demanding widespread prisoner releases to coincide with the hoped-for conclusion of the second-phase agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which includes the redeployment of Israeli troops and Palestinian elections throughout the territories.

Like the intifada protests, which started in 1987, the demonstrations were orchestrated rather than spontaneous. And supporters of Al Fatah, Yasser Arafat's pro-peace arm of the Palestine Liberation Organization, protested alongside the hard-line rejectionist factions.

For the first time since Israel and the PLO signed their Declaration of Principles in Washington, D.C., in September 1993, Arafat himself apparently had ordered his supporters out into the streets.

But unlike the intifada, which reflected the rage and frustration of Palestinians living under Israel's occupation with no diplomatic movement in sight, this week's events seemed related to progress in the peace negotiations. Well-placed Israeli sources view the outbreak of street disturbances as an effort by Arafat and his close aides to affect the negotiations at this crucial moment.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told his Cabinet this week that now is "the most sensitive moment" since negotiations with the Palestinians began nearly two years ago.

With both sides working toward a target date of July 1 for the next phase of self-rule, the Palestinians apparently believe the violence will help their negotiators win concessions from Israel.

By Tuesday, Jewish settlers in the West Bank had joined an attempt to turn up the heat. They reportedly widened the borders of two West Bank settlements, Beit Horon and Beit El, both near the Palestinian town of Ramallah. The move was part of a campaign against expanding Palestinian self-rule.

Palestinians, meanwhile, launched a general strike on Tuesday to express solidarity with hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners. The hunger strike is now in its second week.

Despite the high-pitched activity, however, Israeli and Palestinian officials continued negotiating in various venues. But wide gaps persisted, and by midweek, Israel's chief negotiator with the Palestinians was reportedly expressing doubts that an agreement would be reached by the Saturday deadline.

"I don't think next week," Uri Savir, the director-general of the Foreign Ministry told Israel's Army Radio. Most of the problems will be solved, he said, but "there is always a lot of drafting work."

Among the unresolved issues are the extent of the proposed Israeli army pullback and Israel's commitment to set a timetable for further redeployment in the West Bank after Palestinian elections.

Despite such issues, many Israeli observers remain largely hopeful about the future of the peace talks with the Palestinians.

They apply a similarly upbeat logic to the escalation of violence along the Lebanese border.

Last Friday morning, following a South Lebanon Army artillery barrage that hit a Lebanese village, Hezbollah terrorists fired several Katyusha rocket salvos across the border.

The rockets killed one man, a 24-year-old French Jewish cook, and injured several others at the Club Med resort at Achziv on the Mediterranean coast just south of the border.

This was the latest in a series of attacks by the Iranian-backed fundamentalist Hezbollah, both across the border and inside Israel's security zone in southern Lebanon.

Together, the attacks are viewed as a deliberate and sustained effort by the Shi'ite fanatics to heat up tensions in the region.

Here, too, the outbreak is reminiscent of previous escalations, some of which led to large-scale Israeli military incursions deep into southern Lebanon.

But this time the violence must be seen in the context of the Israel-Syria peace process, which appears on the verge of a breakthrough following this week's resumption in Washington of long-stalled talks between the army chiefs of staff of the two countries.

Rabin told his Labor Party faction in the Knesset on Monday that he had instructed Israel's negotiator, Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, to take up the Lebanese border issue with his Syrian counterpart.

Israeli military sources said the Syrians could do much to rein in the terrorists, although the prime minister insisted that Syria could not be held directly responsible for the rocket attacks.

For its part, Syria has said it would do nothing to contain the terrorists as long as Israel is occupying Lebanese territory.