Palestinians killed in heavy fighting

Twelve years after Yasser Arafat declared independence, eight are killed in heavy fighting in Jerusalem and the occupied territories
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The Independent Online

Palestinians said all along that they intended to celebrate the anniversary of Yasser Arafat's symbolic 1988 declaration of independence by attacking Israelis on Arab land, so it was always certain that yesterday would become a day of mourning.

Palestinians said all along that they intended to celebrate the anniversary of Yasser Arafat's symbolic 1988 declaration of independence by attacking Israelis on Arab land, so it was always certain that yesterday would become a day of mourning.

But even by the standards of this seven-week conflict, it was a bloody day, and a reminder of inequality of the forces engaged in this low-level war. By nightfall, the Israeli army had shot dead another eight Palestinians and a ninth had died from earlier wounds. Another round of funerals was being prepared, which are sure to bring many thousands on to the streets tomorrow for another round of bloodshed. Such is the grim vortex driving on this war.

The day began with an announcement by the Israeli Army that hours earlier it had arrested 15 suspected Palestinian guerrillas in three West Bank villages that - with the rest of the occupied territories - are now under a tight Israeli blockade.

The late-night commando-style operation by the border police, undercover security forces and army was in retaliation for the killing on Monday of four Israelis in ambushes on their cars. Three of them - two soldiers and a woman settler - were killed a few miles from the raided villages, between Jerusalem and Nablus.

And it ended with heavy fire fights on the edge of Jerusalem, in the Jewish settlement of Gilo, in Ramallah, in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere in the West Bank between Palestinian guerrillas and the Israeli army.

Israel's beleaguered Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, was due to attend a cabinet meeting last night to discuss the violence. The meeting - according to several senior Israelis, including a cabinet minister - could reach a decision to end Israel's "policy of restraint". As the Israeli troops have shot dead scores of young Arab rioters since the end of September, this "policy" came as news to many observers.

Among those likely to take note of these remarks was Mary Robinson, the UN commissioner of human rights, who yesterday ended a mission to the region that included a shooting attack on her motorcade in the West Bank town of Hebron. The commission has already condemned Israel for its use of deadly tactics. "I have been shocked and dismayed and disturbed by what I have seen and heard and especially with the high human cost," she said. "My report will deal with the excessive use of force and I will be referring to the human rights violations that arise from this."

Yesterday the human cost was higher than it has been for a month. Eight Palestinians died - two at the Karni crossing between Israel and Gaza, two in the West Bank town of Tulkarem, one each in Hebron, Kalqilya, Jericho and Jenin. Another Palestinian died on Wednesday in Gaza of wounds sustained the night before.

Mr Arafat kept a low profile for this odd anniversary, created by his declaration of Palestinian independence in exile in Tunis 12 years ago.

He emerged from his Gaza headquarters to mark the occasion with a short plea to the international community to "push the peace process forward". Later, he made an appearance on television to express condolences for the death of the widow of Yitzhak Rabin, Leah, who was buried in Jerusalem yesterday.

But in the war zone itself the mood has changed. Monday's ambushes suggest that the Palestinians have moved more towards a guerrilla war in which their targets are settlers and soldiers.

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