West Bank erupts into violence as peace deadline passes with no deal

Middle East: Frustration over faltering negotiations boils over into weekend of rioting as Arafat ponders unilateral declaration of independent state
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The Independent Online

Scores of Palestinians were injured in a weekend of bloody clashes with Israeli security forces when violence swept through the West Bank and Gaza and another deadline in the timetable for achieving a peace deal was torn up.

Instead of soaking up applause at a ceremony to sign a framework for the final status agreement on Saturday - as they once dreamt - Ehud Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister, and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, were confronted at the weekend with depressingly familiar scenes: Israeli soldiers blasting tear-gas canisters and rubber bullets at young masked Arabs hurling stones and petrol bombs.

The riots grew out of a Palestinian protest called to demand the release of 1,650 prisoners still held in Israeli jails, but they also reflect deepening Palestinian frustration and anger over the lack of success of the peace negotiations.

Senior Israeli officials have gone further, saying that the unrest has been deliberately orchestrated by the Palestinian Authority to exert pressure on Israel. There has been rioting in at least six West Bank towns - including the hot-spots of Hebron, Nablus and Bethlehem - and Gaza. The Palestinians claimed that among the victims was a nine-year-old boy, who lost an eye after being struck by a rubber bullet.

The increase in unrest came after the Israel-Palestinian talks ran into a new impasse last week when Israeli negotiators presented the Palestinians with a map outlining a plan for the West Bank, centrepiece of the planned Palestinian state.

For once, the world had a glimpse of the details of Israel's plan for its neighbours. Officials confirmed that Israel had offered them 66 per cent of the West Bank on which to found the state, holding out the carrot of a further possible 14 per cent after a trial period of several years. Israel would then annex the remaining 20 per cent - which contains the bulk of the 144 Jewish settlements in the occupied territory.

Further intriguing nuggets were unearthed by Israel's Ma'ariv newspaper, which said that Mr Barak also wants to establish two west-east strips of land connecting Israel to a narrow path of territory in the Jordan valley, which he plans to use as a buffer between Jordan and the new Palestine. Areas under Palestinian control would be connected by roads, bridges and tunnels.

The Palestinians were furious, seeing this patchwork proposal as a far cry from their ambition to control almost all of the West Bank and Gaza - and perhaps, trading off Jewish settlement land on the West Bank for parts of Israel - and refused to discuss it any further.

Their reaction was sufficiently strong to prompt Mr Barak quickly to reassure Mr Arafat that this was not his final offer. This does not appear to have mollified him. Reports were circulating that the Palestinian leader no longer believes that Mr Barak is taking the peace process seriously.

These were underscored on Friday when the Palestinian Authority's cabinet issued a statement saying that talks over the framework agreement had failed, and asking Palestinians to stand for a moment's silence in its memory.

Impasses and squabbles come and go with this painfully slow and much-delayed process. The latest quarrel is likely to be smoothed over,although the chances of meeting September's deadline for a final status agreement remain highly remote as fundamental issues - the handling of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem - are still unresolved.

Instead, Mr Arafat may well go ahead with his proposal to declare a state unilaterally.

This brings with it the risk of more violence as Palestinians - perhaps inspired by the success of Hizbollah guerrillas in ending Israel's 22-year occupation of south Lebanon - try to enlarge their hopelessly stunted and broken up statelet (currently comprising only 40 per cent of the West Bank) into a larger, more viable entity.

But yesterday - as the United States envoy Dennis Ross prepared to fly in for yet another bout of shuttle diplomacy - the picture was bleak.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were stuck in a stand-off, in which the former wererefusing to discuss a Palestinian request to release several hundred prisoners until the PA cracked down on the street violence. Israeli prison officials confirmed that 60 Palestinian prisoners in Hadareen prison have been on hunger strike for a fortnight.

The temperature may rise further today, the 52nd anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. Palestinians call it the "Nakba", or "great catastrophe" - when 417 Palestinian villages were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of Arabs were driven off their land to lives as permanent refugees. A commercial strike has been called, and Israeli security forces have been preparing for more trouble.

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