Israelis kill two on West Bank

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The Independent Online
ISRAELI SOLDIERS shot dead two Palestinians and wounded 50 others yesterday, deepening the crisis in relations between Israel and the Palestinians on the eve of President Bill Clinton's visit to Israel and to the autonomous Palestinian enclaves of Gaza and Bethlehem.

Witnesses said Mohammed Amin Suleiman and Kamal Mohammed Adwan, both 18, were hit in the head when Israeli troops fired live rounds during a demonstration in the West Bank town of Qalqilya.

Palestinian anger at Israel's failure to release more of the 2,400 Palestinian prisoners it holds has led to widespread rioting on the West Bank this week, with two Palestinians killed already and 150 injured. The rioting was expected to die down as Mr Clinton's visit neared, but yesterday's deaths may lead to more violence.

In a further setback for Dennis Ross, the US envoy who is trying to defuse the crisis, Israel yesterday rejected a compromise whereby the US, with Israel and the Palestinians, would form a committee to discuss which Palestinian prisoners are to be released. Danny Naveh, the Israeli cabinet secretary, said only Israel may decide who is to be freed. "This is not a matter for negotiations," he said. He denied such a compromise was ever formally presented by the US.

Israel says it will not carry out a planned withdrawal from part of the West Bank next week unless the Palestinian National Council holds a vote nullifying anti-Israel clauses in the Palestinian charter. Mr Clinton is to attend the meeting of the PNC in Gaza on Monday.

Revocation of objectionable clauses in the charter, first drawn up in 1964, is at the centre of Mr Netanyahu's demands - although the Palestinians claim the anti-Israel sections were dropped two years ago with the agreement of the US and the former left-wing Israeli government.

Azmi Shuaibi, a member of the PNC, said that although he voted in favour of changing the charter in 1996, he would vote against now. "It is not that I don't want to change it but I am against Netanyahu ordering us to do so," he said.

At the same time Mr Shuaibi, who is also a Palestinian legislator, says he understands the necessity for the Palestinians to seek a better relationship with the US. He said: "Palestinians understand the world has changed. America is the world's only great power."

The growing intimacy between the US and the Palestinians is worrying the Israeli government. David Bar-Illan, Mr Netanyahu's head of communications, said: "We hope the presidential visit is not perverted into an implicit American recognition of the Palestinian attempt to violate the Oslo accords by unilaterally declaring a state."

The stridency of Mr Netanyahu's rhetoric against the Palestinian leadership is partly an attempt to reassure the Israeli hard right that he has not sold it out by signing the US-brokered Wye Agreement, under which Israel will ultimately give up 40 per cent of the West Bank. He needs to make the revocation of the Palestinian charter appear a hard-won victory.

Mr Netanyahu faces a vote of confidence in the Knesset in 10 days. He is in danger of being squeezed by the Labour-led opposition, voting against him because he has not made peace with the Palestinians, and the hard right, voting against him because it fears he is about to do so. But Mr Netanyahu has shown great skill in the past in holding together his disparate coalition.