Rubber bullets fail to quell West Bank violence

Peace process: Israeli-Palestinian relations erupt into rioting as Egyptian mediation attempts fizzle out

In the X-ray it is a perfect white circle lodged just above the teeth. In fact, it is a rubber-coated steel bullet. It hit 13-year-old Jamal Abdul Nasser just below the nose as riots between Palestinian boys and Israeli soldiers spread through the centre of Hebron for the third day. A few minutes later he was rushed on a stretcher to Alia hospital, a piece of bloodstained bandage covering the centre of his face.

Riots are starting to erupt in Gaza and the West Bank as Palestinians watch the attempt at mediation by Egypt fizzle out. Israel accuses the Palestinian Authority of fomenting the clashes or at least not sending in its police to disperse the rioters.

Yesterday Israeli soldiers shot and wounded at least 38 Palestinians in clashes in the West Bank and Gaza. On Saturday and Sunday they shot and wounded about 45 Arabs during clashes that erupted over a recent United States House of Representatives vote calling on President Bill Clinton to recognise Arab East Jerusalem as part of Israel's capital.

The focus of the riot yesterday in Hebron was the Bab al-Zawiya, a street which marks the start of the Israeli enclave in the city, where some 1,000 Israeli troops defend 400 fanatically right-wing settlers who live in the middle of 120,000 Palestinians.

"People are not happy," said Fawzi al-Natche, a middle-aged man, as he watched the first stones hurled down the street. "They don't like the settlers. I am unemployed. I used to work in a tourist shop in Jerusalem, but now the Israelis won't let me into the city."

The riots in Hebron have gone on long enough to have their own rituals. Except at the centre of the rioting shops often remain open. Small boys throw stones by hand and with catapults and slings. The Israeli soldiers reply with rubber bullets which are more lethal than they sound because the rubber conceals a steel core. In the lulls between clashes Palestinians, 20,000 of whom live in the Israeli enclave, cross rapidly between the two sides.

It is all more dangerous than it looks. A rubber bullet in the eye will often kill. As doctors prepared to operate on Jamal Abdul Nasser yesterday, another casualty was carried in with a bullet in the shoulder. Dr Mohammed, who said he did not want to give his full name, said: "We treated 30 people yesterday, five of whom were badly hurt."

Unlike the last riots, in April, there was no sign of the Palestinian police, of whom there are some 1,500 in the city. Danny Rubinstein, a commentator on Palestinian affairs, writes in the daily Ha'aretz that "the Palestinian Authority doesn't have to make any special effort to organise unrest and demonstrations: it needs only slightly to release its restraints, and thousands take to the streets." As Israel continues to build its settlement at Har Homa, called Jabal Abu Ghneim by Palestinians, and there is no US intervention, Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, may feel that he has no choice but to move towards a renewed confrontation with Israel.

In another sign of the growing friction between Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government, a fourth Palestinian accused of selling land to Israelis has been killed. Hakem Kamhawi, 57, of Nablus, was arrested a month ago for selling land to the Israeli settlement of Kadumim in 1988. Transferred to prison in Jericho, he is variously reported to have died from torture, a heart attack or suicide.

The killings have been strongly criticised in the US, as well as in Israel. In spite of this, Palestinian legislators yesterday looked set to pass a law calling for the imposition of "maximum penalties" on Arabs who sell land to Jews.

The draft law discussed on Monday does not mention the death penalty, saying only that "any Palestinian who violates the law will have committed high treason and shall be punished with the maximum penalty".

An Israeli soldier, the 11th this year, has been killed and three others wounded by a bomb planted by Hizbollah guerrillas in the Israeli-occupied zone in south Lebanon. The bomb detonated as as the soldiers walked beside a tank. Hizbollah has recently stepped up its attacks on Israeli forces.

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