The Bush administration protested Wednesday against the Israeli government's efforts to bar more than 100 Palestinians who hold U.S. citizenship from traveling to the United States to escape Middle East violence.
"There are at least 100 American citizens that have been denied exit from Israel and from the West Bank and Gaza," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. "We find this unacceptable. We've raised the issue with the Israeli government, and we're working to find a quick resolution."
Many of the trapped Americans were turned away from Israel's Ben Gurion Airport when they tried to board U.S.-bound flights. Others were trapped in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by the tight travel restrictions Israel imposed after a bomber killed himself and 20 other people outside a Tel Aviv disco Friday.
The sharp diplomatic exchange came as Israel began to ease the travel restrictions to allow about 2,000 Arab workers to reach their jobs in Israel.
The level of violence subsided somewhat Wednesday. However, in a poignant reminder that peace is still far off, a 5-month-old Israeli boy was gravely injured by a thrown rock. Hard-line Israelis, many of them settlers from the West Bank and Gaza, rallied in Jerusalem to prod Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to take strong military action against the Palestinians.
The American citizens at the center of the latest U.S.-Israel dispute are mostly permanent residents in Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Gaza. Both Israelis and Palestinians frequently claim dual citizenship, most often American.
Hala Maksoud, president of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee that called attention to the issue, said, "This blatant abuse of Arab Americans, holding them in Israel against their will and in spite of advice from our government that Americans avoid being in that country, cannot be tolerated."
But an Israeli diplomat said the travel restrictions applied to all residents of Palestinian areas, regardless of citizenship.
"It wasn't discrimination against them," he said. "They were treated like all other Palestinians." The diplomat, who requested anonymity, emphasized that tourists were not affected, regardless of nationality.
The Israeli official said most of the affected Americans have since been allowed to leave. Boucher said Israel had promised to address the matter. But when asked if the controversy had been resolved, Boucher said, "I don't think I can go that far."
Meanwhile, CIA Director George J. Tenet planned to hold security talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials today to look for measures to ease the conflict, which has raged since September. On his way to Israel, Tenet stopped Wednesday in Egypt and Jordan for talks with officials of those nations. In Amman, the Jordanian capital, he also conferred with William Burns, the administration's point man on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"We've seen a lower level of violence for the last 72 hours or so," Boucher said in Washington. "We certainly hope the situation will continue to move in the right direction and that incidents like the terrible rock-throwing incident that's left an Israeli child critically injured will come, in fact, to a complete end."
He referred to 5-month-old Yehuda Shoham, whose family lives in the West Bank settlement of Shilo. The infant suffered severe brain damage when struck by a rock. The attack heightened anger among settlers, who called for more forceful action by the Israeli government.
"Unfortunately, our government is showing a lot of weakness in its response to terrorism," Benny Shoham, the boy's father, told reporters, according to Associated Press.
Settlers burned a Palestinian greenhouse and two buildings Wednesday to protest the attack and engaged in a rock-throwing battle with Palestinians, Israeli radio said.
Meanwhile, hard-line Israelis demonstrated in Jerusalem against Sharon, who was elected in February on a platform that most Israelis interpreted as a promise to crack down on the Palestinians.
A few thousand settlers gathered to pray at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest monument, then marched to the heart of West Jerusalem, where more people were gathering for the rally to call for military action. At the wall, children waved Israeli flags and a woman carried a sign reading, "Sharon, wake up and smell the blood."
At the urging of the Bush administration, Sharon has avoided the sort of military action he took last month, when he used F-16 warplanes to bomb Palestinian targets. But it was not clear how much longer Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat would be able to restrain their followers.
Meanwhile, Israeli media reports said the U.S. and Israel had reached agreement on a plan to freeze most Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza, a step Washington has long urged. But both U.S. and Israeli officials insisted that there was no deal yet.
"We have not reached any agreement with the Israelis on settlement activities," Boucher said.