Ethnic hate fuels cycle of revenge murders

Diplomatic efforts stepped up but tit-for-tat violence between Palestinian and Jewish civilians raises fears of prolonged bloodshed
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The Independent Online

The Middle East conflict is rapidly becoming a sectarian war in which well-armed Jewish and Palestinian elements are slaying one another in a cycle of revenge killings and ethnic hatred. Such a scenario raises the nightmarish prospect of prolonged blood-letting between Jewish and Arab vigilantes operating outside the control of politicians and their security services.

The Middle East conflict is rapidly becoming a sectarian war in which well-armed Jewish and Palestinian elements are slaying one another in a cycle of revenge killings and ethnic hatred. Such a scenario raises the nightmarish prospect of prolonged blood-letting between Jewish and Arab vigilantes operating outside the control of politicians and their security services.

With each new day of the Palestinian uprising, almost a fortnight after the violence erupted, evidence of ruthless tit-for-tat attacks is mounting, with the death toll already more than 90. A Palestinian was found shot through the head near the West Bank town of Nablus yesterday, and another was found in a field beaten to death. And on Sunday, a US-born rabbi, who was also a settler, was found shot dead on the West Bank. Israeli police said he was beaten and shot with five bullets and dumped in a cave after being seized by Palestinians.

Yesterday thousands of angry people marched through Nazareth - an Arab city within Israel - during the funeral procession of two Israeli Arabs killed in clashes with Jews.

Those deaths further heighten the risk of a fresh explosion of unrest among Israel's Arabs, one-fifth of the population. They are still reeling from riots in which they suffered the worst fatalities at the hands of Israeli police since the founding of the state in 1948. According to the Israeli peace activist group, Gush Shalom, the violence in Nazareth flared after about 1,000 Jews left the nearby Jewish town of Natzrat Elite and rampaged into the Arab areas wielding guns and clubs. They began shooting and beating people "indiscriminately". The group accused the police of failing to intervene.

Palestinian human rights activists accuse the Israeli security forces of standing by while five Palestinians have been killed by Jewish civilians in the past three days. Whether these allegations are true or not - information from the conflict zone is often scrappy, biased and incomplete - there is now a real threat that one side or the other will commit a mass killing along the lines of the attack by Baruch Goldstein, the Jewish fanatic who killed 29 Muslim worshippers at a holy site in Hebron in 1994 and was bludgeoned to death.

Killings have been committed by both sides. On Sunday, the American-born rabbi, Hillel Lieberman, was found shot dead. His death attracted headlines in the United States, partly because his family claims that he was distantly related to Al Gore's vice-presidential running mate, Senator Joseph Lieberman - although the politician denies any link.

LAW, the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment, has collected material about dozens of attacks in towns and villages across the West Bank. This includes the death of a 25-year-old Palestinian man from Ramallah who, according to LAW, was found dead in a field, and who appeared to have been tortured with electricity, burnt with a hot iron and attacked with an axe.

A senior Palestinian official, Hassan Asfour, urged Palestinians yesterday to drive out Jewish settlers living in the occupied territories because they were committing "terrorist acts". He said: "The settlers must now be a target for every Palestinian in order to stop their terrorism and they must be uprooted from our Palestinian-occupied land."

Sectarian hatred reached a perilous new pitch when Palestinian youths tore down the Jewish shrine of Joseph's Tomb in Nablus on Saturday, after Mr Barak pulled out a handful of Israeli troops who had been defending it for more than a week against crowds of Palestinians. Seeing that the site was being desecrated - from the tell-tale plume of smoke rising above Nablus - outraged religious settlers, carrying M-16s and Uzis, had to be restrained by Israeli troops from entering the West Bank town.

But Jews elsewhere swiftly retaliated - critically, in front of TV cameras - by wrecking an old mosque in Tiberius, an Israeli town on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

There are up to 200,000 Jewish settlers living in defiance of UN resolutions on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, some of whom have been trained in firearms and issued with M-16 automatic rifles by the Israeli army. They include a fanatical element, which has reportedly stockpiled arms for the day it might have to fight to stay on illegally occupied land. Palestinians also appear to have access to plenty of arms; the Israelis believe there are up to 80,000 Kalashnikovs in Palestinian hands in the occupied territories.

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