A campaign by Jewish settlers to occupy West Bank hilltops erupted in violence Sunday when Palestinians tried to take back an encampment near the city of Ramallah and settlers responded with gunfire. One Palestinian was shot in the chest and died.
It was the first death in the settlers’ month-old campaign of land seizures and road blockades seeking to stop the expansion of Palestinian rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The clash occurred as the Israeli Cabinet approved a partial agreement to expand Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank that was forged last week by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.
The Cabinet headed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin approved the accord with the Palestinians despite the concerns of top security officials that the deal--which includes an army redeployment in the West Bank--will hamper the army’s ability to fight terrorism.
Sunday’s events were evidence of the rising level of tension and public discord as the country moves toward the second stage of the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace accord and prepares to hand over West Bank lands that were captured by the Israeli army in the 1967 Middle East War.
The settlers’ campaign against the 1993 accord has become increasingly militant in recent weeks, and a fatal confrontation between settlers and Arabs had been feared. Many of the settlers carry weapons.
Sunday’s clash occurred near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, north of Ramallah and about 12 miles from Jerusalem, where settlers set up a camp last week on a hilltop that Palestinians said belonged to them.
As redeployment approaches, this scene increasingly has been played out: In a matter of hours, men, women and children lay claim to a hilltop with temporary houses on land that they believe the government plans to give to the Palestinians. Normally, the army and police evict them, but they return again and again.
This time, there were no troops. According to witnesses, about 100 Arabs from Dura al Qara marched up the hill and, finding no settlers, proceeded to tear down the shacks the settlers had built.
As the Palestinians were burning the settlers’ belongings, a carload of settlers arrived and opened fire. A 22-year-old Palestinian, Khairi Mohammed Abdel Hafeez, was shot in the chest and carried away. He died later at a Ramallah hospital.
The dead man’s family took his body from the hospital but reportedly will allow Israeli officials to conduct an autopsy.
Settlers denied responsibility in the fatal shooting. Police later announced that three of the settlers, including a security guard who admitted firing his weapon, had been arrested in connection with the death.
Arab and Israeli accounts of the incident were diametrically opposed. Yehuda Dana, a Beit El security guard, told Israel Radio: “They [Palestinians] set the generator on fire; they tore the prayer books and destroyed the construction we began to build here. The picture I saw was of the Arabs rioting here. . . . I shot in the air.”
Palestinian witnesses said on national television that the shooting had been deliberate and directed, that the settlers had knelt and taken aim.
Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, which now rules Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho, issued a statement demanding that the Israeli government control radical settlers and saying that the shooting endangered the peace process.
An estimated 120,000 Jewish settlers live in West Bank enclaves among a Palestinian majority of about 1.2 million. The settler activists are seeking a national referendum before the government hands over any more West Bank land.
Arafat assumed control of Gaza and Jericho a year ago under the peace accord. Under the next phase of the accord, he is to gain control of most West Bank cities and villages.
The deal calls for Israeli troops to pull out of Arab cities before Palestinian elections this fall and then out of nearly all of the more than 400 Arab villages over 18 months. But it failed to resolve the issue of control over the city of Hebron, where about 400 Jews live among about 100,000 Palestinians, and several other issues such as water rights.
The deal was approved by the Israeli Cabinet in a 15-1 vote, with two ministers abstaining. One of those who abstained--Interior Minister Ehud Barak--was certainly an embarrassment to Rabin, who brought the former army general and chief of staff into the Cabinet last month in hopes of gaining military support for the peace process.
Barak and Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the current chief of staff, criticized the pact as forcing Israeli troops to withdraw too quickly from the West Bank. According to the Israeli media Sunday, the powerful military figures said that withdrawing from the villages would hamper the army’s ability to gather intelligence and pursue terrorists following attacks.