Palestinian youths with rocks and slingshots fought Israeli troops firing tear gas and rubber-coated bullets in Bethlehem on Saturday, reportedly injuring dozens of people.
Young Palestinian men in Bethlehem clash regularly with Israeli troops, but Saturday’s battle was unusually heavy, witnesses said. It emphasized the seething frustrations in West Bank towns following months of deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
The battle also served to underscore what has been the intractability of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; it came on the 50th anniversary of the U.N. vote that authorized the creation of the Jewish state of Israel.
The Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which slowed down the peace process upon taking power last year, last week offered to pull back troops from part of the West Bank, but Palestinians rejected the move as less than what Israel’s previous government already had committed to do in a 1995 accord. Netanyahu’s offer also fell short of what U.S. officials had defined as the “serious” troop withdrawal necessary to re-launch peacemaking.
The battle, along the town’s main street, erupted after thousands of Palestinians marched in Bethlehem and other towns in the West Bank to protest Israel’s detention of Palestinian prisoners, many of whom are held without trial.
In Bethlehem, more than a thousand protesters marched peacefully and called for the liberation of Palestinian prisoners - notably Itaf Alayan, a woman described as a member or supporter of Islamic Jihad, a militant Islamic fundamentalist group. Alayan is on her 39th day of a hunger strike against her detention without charge or trial.
As the march neared a Jewish religious shrine, the Tomb of Rachel, some hundreds of Palestinian youths broke off to confront Israeli troops guarding the site. The youths broke through a roadblock manned by Palestinian policemen and hurled rocks at the troops, who fired tear gas and rubber-coated bullets in return.
Under the terms of the peace accord, the police of the Palestinian Authority are supposed to contain such Palestinian rioting, but frequently fail to do so.
Palestinian journalists said as many as 40 Palestinians were injured in the clashes, and an Israeli army spokesman said four soldiers were wounded.
xxxx SEEKING STATUS JERUSALEM Yasser Arafat has requested full Palestinian membership in the United Nations, something only independent states thus far have achieved. The Palestinian Authority, which governs most of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, now has observer status at the United Nations, meaning it cannot vote in the General Assembly. In a message to Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Arafat said the 50th anniversary of a 1947 U.N. resolution that was a prelude to establishing the state of Israel would be an appropriate occasion for granting full membership to the Palestinians