‘Al Aqsa’ Clashes Persist as Albright Seeks Truce in Paris
Armed Palestinian rioters confronted Israeli troops at key flashpoints for the seventh straight day on Wednesday, while the US summoned Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Paris in a desperate bid to douse the unremitting flames of the “Al Aqsa uprising.”
The death toll from nearly a full week of widespread clashes stands at nearly 60 people, mostly Palestinians, but also including 10 Israeli Arabs, 4 members of Israeli security services and one Jewish civilian. Among the over 1,300 wounded, the majority are Palestinian and Israeli Arabs, while around 150 Israeli policemen and soldiers and several dozen Jewish civilians have been injured in the running skirmishes and scattered terrorist incidents.
Over the past two days, there have been sporadic disturbances continuing throughout Judea/Samaria and Gaza (YESHA) and even on the outskirts of Jerusalem, but the brunt of the fiercest, sustained rioting and shooting is confined to certain known friction points where Palestinians have been trying to drive off any Jewish presence for several years now. This includes the Netzarim junction in central Gaza, Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, the Jewish enclaves in Hebron, Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, and a junction just north of Ramallah along the main road for Israeli settlers to the Shomron region.
Scores of Palestinian gunmen have attacked the IDF outpost near Netzarim day and night from all directions, prompting Israel to respond with missiles fired from helicopter gunships to protect the small contingent of troops huddled inside. At Joseph’s Tomb, another small force inside the fortified synagogue has survived numerous assaults by Fatah militiamen (the “Tanzim”) using automatic weapons and firebombs. (Six IDF soldiers were slaughtered defending Joseph’s Tomb in the 1996 “tunnel riots.”) Near Ramallah, Israeli units withdrew from the main friction point in observance of cease-fire terms set by the Palestinian Authority, but moved back in after Palestinians renewed attacks.
While the PA has said it ordered its security forces and Fatah to stop shooting at Israeli troops, Fatah leaders say they have received no such order. Marwan Barghouti, Fatah’s General-Secretary in the “West Bank” confirmed to IMRA he has not heard anything about a cease-fire from the PA, and Fatah has called for slaying an Israeli soldier for each Arab “martyr” who has died in the fight for the “liberation of Palestine.”
Following the Palestinian refusal to honor a series of such unwritten “cease-fires,” Barak and Arafat are meeting separately today with US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who is anxious to lead the two sides away from the latest spiral of violence. Although Albright had hoped to convene a trilateral meeting this afternoon – offering a mollifying photo op for domestic consumption back home – it has been difficult to arrange. Also in doubt is a second Barak/Arafat summit planned for Thursday in Sharm e-Sheikh to be hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
In Paris today, Albright has been shuttling between Barak and Arafat, trying to work out the terms for a three-way meeting for the cameras. The PA has conditioned such a meeting on Israel’s removal of its heavy armour away from Netzarim and other areas. The main sticking point has been Arafat’s additional demand that Barak agree to an international commission of inquiry which would investigate the origins and extent of the recent hostilities. Barak has been holding out for a smaller American investigative team lead by CIA director George Tenet, with Israeli and PA participation.
As of press time, TV reports indicate Albright has finally managed to get Barak and Arafat to meet face-to-face, following French pressure on Arafat to accept a CIA-led inquest. Other terms of a pending truce are under discussion, and a joint public appearance and the Sinai follow-up on Thursday may be in the works.
Israeli security sources are concerned that if nothing concrete is in place by Muslim noon prayers on Friday, Islamic passions may flare once again. The terrorist faction Hamas – elated that Palestinian police and armed Fatah units have been leading the attacks on Israel – has declared Friday as a “day of rage” to mark the week’s violence, ISRAEL RADIO reports. During the intifada, such occasions were marked by especially violent incidents. In addition, two days of Palestinian mourning are being planned for Thursday and Friday. Thus, the Israeli military is bracing for the possibility of heavy rioting after Muslims emerge from Al Aqsa, on the Temple Mount, and other mosques on Friday, their Sabbath day.
The battle is still being waged in the media over whether Likud chairman Ariel Sharon is responsible for sparking the carnage by visiting the Temple Mount last Thursday, or whether the Palestinian leadership and/or Muslim extremists were looking for any pretext to instigate a conflict. So far, Barak has held his ground, saying there were “deeper causes” for the eruption of violence than Sharon’s visit.
While the PA is decrying the “excessive use of force” employed by the Israelis, Barak has pronounced Arafat responsible for the uprising. He also has ordered his forces to exercise restraint, but authorized a firm response if fired upon.
ISRAEL RADIO reported on Tuesday that before the whole blow-up began, acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami was promised by Jibril Rajoub, head of PA Preventive Security, that there would be no reaction to Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount as long as Sharon did not attempt to enter the mosque itself. Rajoub made the promise in a trans-Atlantic conversation with Ben Ami, who was in the US at the time.
Likud MK Gideon Ezra attributed the disturbances that began towards the end of Sharon’s visit to the Israeli Arab MKs who confronted Sharon on the Temple Mount. PLO factions have issued or renewed death threats against Sharon in recent days.
Barak finds himself in an increasingly precarious political situation at home, as the incitement by Israeli Arab MKs has effectively blocked his formation of a minority leftist coalition with the outside support of the 10 Arab members of parliament. On the other hand, according to a Knesset member on the right, Albright has been orchestrating behind-the-scenes the harsh French condemnation of Sharon, signaling Barak that an emergency national unity government with his Likud faction is equally unthinkable. If this predicament persists, it virtually assures passage of an early elections bill sometime in November.
Some Israeli intelligence sources and political analysts contend that Arafat needed a flare-up, since he was cornered on the diplomatic front, finding little international support for a unilaterally declared Palestinian state by year’s end. Nothing draws world sympathy better than the sight of angry Palestinian youths facing off against the well-equipped IDF, and losing. Ultimately, Arafat prefers a legacy of birthing his state through a bloody confrontation, rather than having it handed to him by Israel via a peace agreement.
In addition, Arafat is using the prevailing Islamic fanaticism among Palestinians over Al Aqsa to show just how much they are willing to bleed for the contested site, thus driving up the price Israel must pay if it wants to retain control of the Temple Mount. “Al Aqsa” is also Arafat’s best drawing card to rally Arab and Islamic states to his side.
Large street demonstrations have been held in Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus and in Lebanon, urging strikes against Israel. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was quoted today as saying his country is ready to “put an end to Zionism” if Arab rulers do not defend the Palestinians.
Demonstrators attacked the US Embassy in Damascus, while Palestinians and others staged angry protests outside Israeli embassies elsewhere, including Berlin and Oslo. In the Norwegian capital, the rally was even attended by members of pro-peace groups, with the crowd shouting, “We will kill all Israelis.”
The Lebanese daily AL MUSTAQABAL revealed today that Hizb’Allah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the PFLP-GC were holding meetings in an attempt to reach a common response to the uprising. The four organizations have reportedly set up a “central war room” to monitor developments. The IDF has been concerned for months that a flare-up in the territories could ignite a confrontation along the Israeli-Lebanese border, which has a number of vulnerable points since the May withdawal.
In other developments, among the latest casualties was one Palestinian killed while preparing a firebomb attached to a gas canister. An IDF soldier from Dimona died in hospital of wounds inflicted late Monday in an ambush in Beit Sahour, east of Bethlehem.
Scattered settlements in YESHA have been fired upon, as well as several Israeli buses and cars traveling along bypass roads in YESHA. Children in Psagot, in the Benjamin region, have been ordered into bomb shelters over the last few days, as kindergarten rooms and day-care centers have been targeted by hostile fire.
Last night, Palestinians fired on an ambulance carrying Israelis wounded after dark in the vicinity of Ramallah. “The Palestinians have broken every rule in the book,” a senior IDF officer said this morning of the incident.
Around Jerusalem, firebombs and stonings were reported thrown in Gilo and East Talpiot, while tires were burned on the road to Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, on the southern flank of the capital. No injuries were reported, but several roads were closed in a precautionary move.
The Israeli Arab sector seems to be substantially quieter in recent days, after Barak met with the Arab monitoring committee, which called off a general strike. The prime minister made several promises to the Arab sector in return for the truce. Clashes involving hundreds of youths however did take place in some Israeli Arab towns yesterday, including Nazareth, and at several major junctions. Suspected Arab arsonists set dozens of forest fires in the western Galilee.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.