Gaza bloodshed marks 50-year struggle

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The Independent Online
ISRAELI soldiers killed eight Palestinians, including an eight- year-old boy, in riots in Gaza yesterday as Palestinians commemorated the anniversary of their forced flight 50 years ago from what is now Israel. It is the worst violence for 18 months and may indicate that, given the stalemate in the peace talks, the confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians is taking a bloodier turn.

The Palestinians died in clashes at the northern and southern ends of the Gaza Strip, the congested enclave which is home to 1 million Palestinians and 5,000 Jewish settlers. At the Erez checkpoint Akram Abu Askar, one of the wounded, was quoted as saying: "I saw somebody shot in the neck and went to evacuate him. They shot me in the right arm. When I continued pulling him, they shot me in the other arm."

Six of the Palestinians who died were killed as they demonstrated outside the Jewish settlement in Gush Khatif in Gaza, which has often seen fighting in the past. Major-General Abdel Raziq al-Mujaideh, chief of public security in the Gaza Strip, said two boys aged eight were killed, though other sources said one was in a coma. He said: "The number killed reached eight martyrs and 80 were wounded." A further 100 people were injured on the West Bank, mostly in Hebron, Bethlehem and Ramallah.

The violence yesterday was the worst since September 1996, when Benjamin Netanyahu, the newly elected Israeli Prime Minister, opened a tunnel under the Muslim quarter in the Old City in Jerusalem. More than 80 people were killed and over 1,000 injured on both sides. On that occasion, Palestinian police fired back at Israeli troops. This happened on one occasion in Gaza yesterday, but on the West Bank Israeli troops appeared to be mainly firing rubber-coated steel bullets and tear-gas at demonstrators.

In Jerusalem the day began with Jewish extremists setting fire to a wooden door leading to the sanctuary on which stand al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Police and border guards with long wooden batons later broke up a march to commemorate al-Naqba, the disaster when 700,000 Palestinians lost their homes in Israel in 1948. Hatem Abdel Qader, a member of the Palestinian legislature, was beaten by police.

In the central square of Nablus, the largest city on the West Bank, some 3,000 people gathered to observe a two minutes' silence and listen to a speech by Yasser Arafat, speaking from Gaza. "We are not just a bunch of refugees begging for pity and charity," he said. "We are not guests in this world. We are partners in it, and this partnership cannot be fulfilled without the establishment of a state."

When other speakers mentioned the name of Mr Netanyahu, people who were standing on the rooftops fired shots into the air.

There was a march by purposeful-looking young men belonging to Hamas, the Islamic militant organisation, carrying a large model of the Dome of the Rock, with its golden dome, on their shoulders. Small boys carried placards saying: "50 Years of Palestine Disaster". A blue-and-white Israeli flag was burned on a roof. The mood was festive rather than angry, until rumours spread through the crowd of Palestinians killed elsewhere.

In Jerusalem, Israeli border guards, paramilitary police armed with batons and guns firing rubber bullets chased small boys up and down the road below the Ottoman walls surrounding the Old City. "If the soldiers would go away all this would stop," said a shop- keeper, opening the metal doors that protect his shop by six inches. Occasional empty bottles were hurled at the police from side-streets.

Tension has increased in Jerusalem in the past week since a Jewish seminary student belonging to a settler organisation called Ateret Cohanim was stabbed to death in the Via Dolorosa in the Old City.

A 51-year-old Palestinian construction worker was similarly killed with a knife in what appears to be a retaliatory attack as he walked to work past the ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood of Mea Sharim. Frustration is deep among the 2.9 million Palestinians living in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem over the failure of the Oslo accords of 1993 to improve their lives or move them far towards self-determination.

Israeli restrictions on the movement of people and goods led to a 35- per-cent fall in per capita gross national product and a rise in the number of unemployed Palestinians from 20 per cent to 42 per cent in the four years after Oslo, according to a European Union report.