Palestinian forces seal off West Bank

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The Independent Online
PALESTINIAN security forces sealed off autonomous areas in the West Bank and Gaza yesterday in a largely successful effort to reduce the level of violence which has left nearly 70 people dead in four days.

Diplomatic sources said that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat were expected to meet today on the Israel-Gaza border. The summit was to be followed later by a Washington gathering that was to include the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Hussein. Spokesmen for both Mr Arafat and Mr Netanyahu said that no time or place had been set.

At the scene of some of last week's fiercest fighting in Ramallah, a Palestinian town north of Jerusalem, rows of Palestinian police in blue uniforms carrying see-through plastic riot shields forced back hundreds of young men intending to confront Israeli troops on the outskirts of town. "Both sides have agreed they will try to control the situation," said Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinian security chief for the West Bank.

"Arafat is scared that the Israelis will come into area A [the autonomous enclave] unless he quietens things down," said a young Palestinian leaving the demonstration in Ramallah. "There are checkpoints everywhere who stop the demonstrators. We tried to go around, but we couldn't."

To enter or leave Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem, a car has to pass through three lines of Palestinian police. Again the idea was to prevent Palestinians advancing on Rachel's Tomb, a Jewish shrine on the main road.

Mr Arafat may feel that Mr Netanyahu now has the message that if he continues to ignore Palestinian demands, then the violence of the last few days will be repeated. Although the Prime Minister accuses him of inciting the demonstrations and the shooting by police, co-operation between Israeli and Palestinian security is clearly continuing. Mr Arafat's decision to cool down the crisis is being criticised by many Palestinians as being over-conciliatory, but none of the other Palestinian factions appeared to have a clear strategy.

The only violence on the road from Jerusalem yesterday was at the entrance to Kallandia refugee camp, which is meant to be under Israeli control. Stone-throwers pelted Israeli border guards, who arrived in jeeps and responded with rubber bullets and percussion grenades.

The US has been making urgent efforts to bring Mr Netanyahu and Mr Arafat together. On Friday, Mr Netanyahu said Mr Arafat "must personally intervene and stop the incitement", and the Palestinian leader appears to have done so, but the Prime Minister has given no assurance that he will close the archaeological tunnel under the Muslim quarter in Jerusalem. Its opening has led to the death of 54 Palestinians and 14 Israelis so far.

Yossi Beilin, the former minister responsible for peace negotiations in Shimon Peres's Labour government, said the present right-wing administration had lied when it said last week that the Palestinians had agreed in January to the opening of the tunnel. Israeli negotiators had raised the idea informally with the Palestinians, he said, but the other side never accepted the deal.

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