Ceasefire forgotten on the Cursed Mountain

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Two days after the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement, a pitched battle erupted yesterday between Jewish settlers and Palestinians on a hill overlooking the city of Nablus, controlled by the latter.

Two days after the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement, a pitched battle erupted yesterday between Jewish settlers and Palestinians on a hill overlooking the city of Nablus, controlled by the latter.

The prolonged firefight, which left one Palestinian and one Israeli dead, is further evidence that maintaining the fragile United States-brokered ceasefire does not depend only on Yasser Arafat's efforts to rein in Palestinian militiamen, or on the Israeli army pulling back its forces and softening its tactics. Continuing battles between Palestinians and Jewish settlers, who include bitterly opposed hardliners determined to drive one another off the land, could also wreck it.

The clash erupted at Mount Ebal and led to combat so intense that Israeli helicopters, trading fire with Palestinians, could not reach all the wounded. Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, described the battle last night as a very grave incident and a "blatant violation by the Palestinian Authority" of the ceasefire. National radio broadcast a warning to Palestinians to evacuate the area, raising fears of military action.

Forty settlers, accompanied by an army escort, who were on a trip to view a Jewish shrine, Joseph's Tomb, from the hillside, said they were fired upon by Palestinian gunmen from the nearby Askar refugee camp. Palestinians say the settlers descended the hill toward the camp and opened fire on people harvesting olives.

The mood among settlers on the Israeli-occupied West Bank has always tended to be hardline, but there is a different edge after three weeks of bloodshed. Yaacov Hayman, of Itamar, a Jewish settlement on a hill south of Nablus, said before the battle: "There comes a time when if you want to have peace you have to make war."

A series of atrocities in the past 10 days has increased tensions between the Arabs of Nablus, a stronghold of opposition to Israel, and settlers on nearby hills. The violence began after a Palestinian mob desecrated the Tomb, which is revered by Jews. The same day, a settler, Hillel Lieberman was shot dead and dumped in a cave. On Tuesday, settlers killed a Palestinian who was picking olives, and wounded others.

As the bloodshed worsens, the Israeli and the Palestinian leadership are edgy and unsure of whether the terms of the Sharm el-Sheikh summit will hold. A deadline for a total ceasefire expires today.

The settlers are uneasy, and there are calls for the Israeli army to intervene more forcibly. "We are going in the direction of a big war," said Sarah Gelbard, a London-born settler who lives in Elon Moreh, a settlement of 1,500 people overlooking Nablus. "There is no way we can sign a deal with people who are thirsty for our blood. The Arabs must be made to understand that they must live here on certain conditions, or leave."

There are 200,000 settlers in the occupied territories. They are a civilian occupation force protected by the Israeli armed forces. Israel has spent vast sums developing fortified towns and building a network of roads skirting Arab areas.

* The United Nations Human Rights Commission voted in Geneva yesterday to condemn Israel for "widespread, systematic and gross violations of human rights" and set up an international inquiry into violence in the West Bank and Gaza.

The body voted by 19 votes to 16 to approve a draft resolution put forward by Arab nations, with 17 abstentions and one absentee. The resolution "strongly condemns the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force... by the Israeli occupying power" during recent outbreaks of violence.

Comments