Israeli withdrawal delayed as more gun battles rage

Violence grips Palestinian territories despite promise from Sharm el-Sheikh meeting of renewed security co-operation
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The Independent Online

A rubber bullet - actually a metal bullet thinly coated with rubber - clanged against a gate a few yards from Rachel's Tomb in the heart of Bethlehem, missing our car by inches. "Don't worry," said the taxi driver, who had interpreted our request to be taken to the scene of the trouble a little too literally, "this is normal."

A rubber bullet - actually a metal bullet thinly coated with rubber - clanged against a gate a few yards from Rachel's Tomb in the heart of Bethlehem, missing our car by inches. "Don't worry," said the taxi driver, who had interpreted our request to be taken to the scene of the trouble a little too literally, "this is normal."

"Normal" in Bethlehem yesterday, as in the rest of the West Bank and Gaza since the present bout of violence started nearly three weeks ago, meant a funeral, angry demonstrations, groups of youths hurling stones at Israeli troops, who replied with rubber bullets - and an exchange of heavymachine-gun and automatic weapons fire with Israeli tanks on the hillside above the town. Two Israeli border policemen were wounded, one seriously, in this clash, while at least two Palestinians died elsewhere.

Farid Nasrara, 28, a Palestinian olive farmer, was shot dead and three others were wounded near Nablus by Jewish settlers - an unprovoked attack, said the Palestinians; a response to an assault with knives and iron bars, said the settlers, two of whom were arrested. In the Gaza Strip, a 42-year-old Palestinian was killed near the Erez border crossing into Israel as hundreds threw rocks and firebombs at an Israeli military checkpoint. The Israeli army said a sniper shot and injured a firebomb thrower.

In Sharm el-Sheikh yesterday the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, pressured by President Bill Clinton, agreed to resume "security co-operation", which would mean the withdrawal of the Israeli armour that has helped to enforce a blockade of Palestinian areas. But hours later, as long bursts echoed between two Israeli tanks emplaced on a hill below the Jewish settlement of Gilo and a Palestinian area on neighbouring Beit Jala hill, it was clear that in Bethlehem at least, no pull-out had begun.

The clash began when Palestinian gunmen opened fire on the Israeli position. But Palestinian police and militiamen denied involvement, and people in Beit Jala suggested the attack had been committed by the Tanzim, the armed wing of Fatah, Mr Arafat's party.

Homes on both hillsides were evacuated. "There is a lot of shooting now. Our window was hit again," said a tearful Anna Strekma, an Israeli whose house had been damaged in an earlier shoot-out. "It is impossible to live here," said Jabar Sa'adea, a 22-year-old Palestinian, standing outside his sister's house on the opposite hill. "My sister and my aunt have gone to stay with my parents."

Incidents such as these have reinforced scepticism on both sides that any ceasefire can hold. Among Bethlehem Palestinians there was strident opposition to any deal. As they buried Muayed Darwish, a 15-year-old boy hit in the head by a rubber bullet on Monday, there were chants of "Revenge, revenge" and "No to Sharm el-Sheikh, yes to armed struggle."

Daoud Mughtar, 58, said: "Clinton, Barak and Arafat are lying to themselves if they think they made a truce."

About 2,000 mourners gathered in Bethlehem's Manger Square, next to the Church of the Nativity. Khalil Azea, 17, took two bullets from his left pocket. "That's what the Israelis understand and that's what we will fight for," he said. "We don't believe in peace any more." Later, several dozen Palestinians broke away from the procession and headed for Rachel's Tomb, a shrine to the Bibilical Jacob's second wife that is now a heavily fortified Israeli position, and the exchanges of stones, bottles and rubber bullets began.

A short distance away, as Palestinian youths showed off their slingshots and catapults, Fadi Zarir, 20, said: "Whatever the agreement in Sharm el-Sheikh, the Israelis will keep shooting and we will keep throwing stones. A ceasefire would help everyone, but the Israelis never keep their word."

His friend Mohammed Diea, also 20, had a message for Mr Arafat. "Since this intifada began," he said, "the peace talks have been merely between Palestinian and Israeli leaders, not between the Palestinian and Israeli people. Arafat has to do his job, and we will do ours."

At Beit Jala hospital, where four people had been taken with rubber bullet wounds by midafternoon, the director, Dr Peter Qumri, was also doubtful. "Israel doesn't respect what it signs," he said. "If the violence is to stop, it is up to them. They are the ones doing the shooting."

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