West Bank violence sweeps into Israel's heartlands

Troops kill four Israeli Arabs as battles rage throughout occupied territories despite two attempts to call a ceasefire in the region
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The Independent Online

The bloody violence sweeping through the West Bank and Gaza Strip has ignited within Israel, producing the first fatal clashes involving Israeli Arabs for nearly a quarter of a century.

The bloody violence sweeping through the West Bank and Gaza Strip has ignited within Israel, producing the first fatal clashes involving Israeli Arabs for nearly a quarter of a century.

Six Israeli Arabs have died in the last 24 hours in Arab towns within Israel, while battles raged throughout the occupied territories for a fifth day and spread.

The conflict yesterday also claimed its first Jewish civilian, stoking emotions to an even higher pitch, and thwarting efforts to restore peace. So far, two ceasefires have been announced, only to fail.

Paying no heed to international calls for an end to the fighting, Israeli troops used an arsenal of weaponry more suitable to all-out war, including anti-tank missiles, heavy machine guns and helicopter gun-ships, while the Palestinian security forces attacked them with machine guns. "The situation is very, very bad," said an Israeli army spokesman.

Both sides are blaming each other, although there is no doubt that the spark that lit the flames was provided by Ariel Sharon, the leader of Israel's Likud party, with his reckless visit to Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem last week.

Yesterday, the international community finally spoke out. The French President, Jacques Chirac, accused the former Israeli minister of "irresponsible provocation".

Meanwhile, the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, appealed to both sides to "do whatever they can to bring the situation under control and bring an end to the violence".

The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, warned that the "bloodshed that could cause great damage to the chances of continuing the peace process and a major deterioration".

Yasser Arafat - who headed to Jordan yesterday to discuss the violence with King Abdullah - issued a statement telling Israel to "stop shooting our soldiers, our old people, our youths, our women". The Palestinian leader continued: "Get Israeli soldiers out of Palestinian cities and refugee camps."

By yesterday evening, the death toll over the last five days stood at 43 after another day of battles, score-settling and bloodshed, and another day of funeral processions which drew tens of thousands of people on to the streets.

The spread of the unrest to Israel's one million-strong Arab population marks the first occasion that Israeli security forces have killed Israeli Arabs since a flare-up in 1976, in which six died during protest over land expropriations.

In Umm al-Fahm, an Israeli Arab town close to the Green Line, Israeli police yesterday shot dead an Arab teenager during a day of unrest in which thousands rampaged through the town.

The Israeli army is now threatening to use the big stick. It has deployed Merkava 4 tanks in Gaza and Nablus, stationing them on the border of a Palestinian-controlled zone, in the hope that the threat of extreme force would persuade Mr Arafat to stop the unrest. Firing tank shells at crowds of stone-throwing teenagers would be even more damaging to Israel's image internationally than the TV footage of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy who died huddling to his father's side during a gun battle on Saturday.

And yet a spokesman for the Israel Defence Forces, Major Yarden Vatikay, said the army would be willing to send in the tanks if it felt it had no choice. "People are dying here and if we need to use tanks to protect our people we will do so," the major said.