West Bank erupts ahead of Clinton visit

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AT LEAST 50 Palestinians were injured in battles with Israeli soldiers yesterday as they demonstrated for the release of 2,400 Palestinian prisoners still held by Israel.

In one incident at Abu Dhis on the outskirts of Jerusalem, a Palestinian was shot in the head when two armed Israelis in a car were attacked by the stone-throwers.

Violent demonstrations took place throughout the West Bank in some of the worst rioting for two years.

In Hebron, Israeli soldiers fired plastic coated steel bullets at Palestinians throwing stones at them, wounding 13. Two soldiers were also injured. Riots also took place near the Palestinian towns of Jenin, Nablus and Bethlehem.

Israel accuses Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, of fomenting the clashes, but the scale of the fighting indicates that the campaign to get the prisoners released has struck a popular nerve. Palestinian prisoners have gone on hunger strike in the main prisons and have been joined by relatives and friends on the outside.

Palestinian anger over the prisoner issue has boiled over ever since Israel released 150 criminals and only 100 security prisoners under the terms of the agreement brokered by President Bill Clinton at Wye in Maryland. Israel says it never agreed to release any more.

The growing violence is casting a shadow over the visit of President Clinton, who arrives in Israel next Saturday and is due to also visit Palestinian-ruled Gaza and Bethlehem. Members of the Israeli cabinet are expressing their opposition to his trip, as it will appear to grant de facto recognition to a Palestinian state.

There is also growing tension between the US and Israel over the decision by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, to suspend the implementation of the Wye Agreement. The US wants its 12-week timetable for implementation to be fulfilled on time. Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, said in Washington yesterday: "I spoke to Chairman Arafat about living up to security obligations and I have spoken to the Israeli foreign minister [Ariel Sharon] about the the importance of Israel fulfilling its obligations."

In parliament Mr Netanyahu was last night fighting to win a vote which might topple his government. His own cabinet and members of his right wing coalition are deeply divided by the Wye deal, with many ministers wanting to drop the agreement. Mr Netanyahu said yesterday: "If they want the government to fall, let it fall."

Amid scenes of confusion in the Knesset, Michael Eitan, a supporter of Mr Netanyahu, filibustered for two hours while the Prime Minister searched frantically for support. He could fall by a no-confidence vote or, a slower process, as the result of a bill to dissolve the Knesset.