As Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat raced from Paris to Egypt this week seeking to negotiate an end to a week of violence that claimed at least 60 lives — including five Jews — pessimism grew that any eventual peace treaty they hammer out would be acceptable to Israeli Jews.
Naomi Blumenthal, chairman of World Likud, said the rioting signaled that the Palestinian people “don’t want peace. We know it now, and most Israelis are very disappointed.”
Silvan Shalom, a leading member of the opposition Likud Party, said the violence made it “much more difficult” for a peace treaty to be adopted in a referendum.
“Israelis realize that we can’t have an agreement with this kind of a guy,” he said, referring to Arafat. “The shooting against Israeli soldiers and civilians is something the Israeli public will not accept.”
One Israeli civilian was shot and killed as he drove in the West Bank, and four Israeli soldiers and police were shot dead. One border policeman bled to death when Palestinian gunmen prevented others from reaching him with aid.
Barak has consistently maintained that a referendum on a peace treaty with the Palestinians would pass. But even Barak’s Israeli Arab deputy foreign minister, Nawaf Massalha, said such a referendum could pass only with the vote of Israeli Arabs.
The rioting claimed the lives of at least 10 Israeli Arabs, who took to the streets of Israel in what appeared to some to be coordinated demonstrations with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Still, Massalha said, “My feeling is that if there is a fair agreement for a permanent peace and Barak said sign it, most of the Israeli Arabs would vote for it. A small majority of Jews would vote against it, but [with the Israeli Arab vote] it would just pass.”
The violence also hardened the resolve of Likud leaders for early elections, which Shalom predicted could take place as early as May.
Rioting by Israeli Arabs was the worst outbreak of violence in the Arab sector since the founding of the state. Rioters blocked roads throughout northern Israel, isolating some Jewish communities and forcing tens of thousands of Jews to remain in their homes. An Israeli Arab leader even told Israel Radio they wanted to kick all Jews out of Israel to make one big Palestinian state.
Blumenthal said that for Israeli Arabs to have joined in the battle against Israeli police was a “big disillusionment for many [Jewish] Israelis. People here are very depressed.”
Added Shalom: “For the first time, Israelis are finding that the intifada is coming to their roads and homes. It’s not just [against] the settlers.”
To ease tensions, Barak met with Israeli Arab leaders for 31/2 hours Tuesday to hear their grievances and find ways to restore calm. Massalha, who attended the meeting, said Barak promised to “appoint an investigative commission headed by a retired judge that would look at both police behavior and Arab behavior.”
“It was a very good meeting, and it was the start of a new relationship between the government and Arab leadership to try to control the situation,” said Massalha. “I believe that maybe the cooperation between the ministers and the Arab leadership will decrease the violence.”
He said he found it unbelievable that young Israeli Arabs “took the law into their own hands and closed highways and damaged a post office. I am not saying they did not do anything, but they are citizens of this country, not inhabitants.”
Massalha, however, questioned the use of deadly force to quell the disturbances.
“If some of the youth did vandalism and blocked streets, that is not justification for shooting them,” he argued. “In America, execution is allowed. In Israel, it is not. But here the police were the judge and executioners. That’s an impossible situation.”
In a later statement, Barak said he promised “peace, equality and partnership” and ordered the police not to fire unless their lives were in danger.
Massalha attributed the Israeli Arab violence to several factors, notably that little had been done in the last year to bring about equality between the Israeli Arabs and Jews. He also said a “mixture of nationalism, a failure of the peace process to show any sign of progress, and the provocation” of Likud Party chairman Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount last Thursday all contributed to the rioting.
Sharon’s visit, Massalha said, was done purely for “political purposes.” That sentiment was echoed by Mudar Kassis, a professor of philosophy at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank.
“The political situation is quite tense and the issue of Jerusalem is at stake, and then you get someone like Sharon, who is known to be anti-Muslim, trying to get into a sacred Muslim place,” Kassis said in a phone interview from Ramallah. “The time and the person made it a provocation.”
President Jacques Chirac of France called Sharon’s visit “an irresponsible provocation on the holy site of the mosque compound. From there it was a predictable conflagration.” U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Sharon’s action was “definitely counterproductive.”
The American Jewish Congress issued a statement saying: “There can be no doubt of the heedlessly provocative nature of [Sharon’s] act.”
But the American Jewish Committee said it viewed Sharon’s visit as “merely the pretext the Palestinians awaited — and prepared for — to unleash this latest round of violence.”
“Lost in the media coverage of the clashes is the fact that armed Palestinian police contribute to the escalation of the violence rather than move quickly to quell it,” the AJCommittee said. “One glaring example was the Palestinian officer who gunned down an Israeli soldier with whom he was serving together in joint security patrols.”
World Likud’s Blumenthal, who accompanied Sharon to the Temple Mount along with other Knesset members, said: “We didn’t do anything provocative there.”
She noted that Sharon had announced his visit in advance and that Arab leaders had called for a mass demonstration there in protest, but Blumenthal said that never materialized. It was after they left, she said, that the Arabs on the Temple Mount hurled the first stones at Israeli police and Jews praying at the Western Wall below.
“Where are we heading if Israelis can’t go there as citizens and as members of parliament?” she asked. “Is this the Israel we have dreamed about for thousands of years?”
Even were Israel to agree to divide Jerusalem, she said, “Why couldn’t Jews be in the part where the Muslims are? We cannot live with that.”
Israeli troops battled the rioters with heavy weapons, including rockets launched from helicopters to kill Palestinian snipers perched in buildings to shoot at Israeli soldiers below. The Palestinians routinely fired automatic rifles; the intensity of the firefights at times resembled a battleground.
Observers said the conflict surpassed levels seen during the 1987-93 Palestinian uprising and three days of gun battles in 1996.
“I have been dealing with such riots since 1987 and … there have never been anything on this level — not when it comes to clashes and certainly not when it comes to the use of weapons,” Yisrael Yitzhak, commander of Israel’s paramilitary border police in the West Bank, was quoted as saying.
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Tuesday that there seemed to be “an almost all-out war” in highly populated areas.
During one fierce battle Saturday at the Netzarim Junction in the Gaza Strip, a 12-year-old Palestinian boy huddled behind a small metal barrel was caught in a crossfire between Palestinian machine gunners and Israeli troops. With his father crouched at his side, the boy, Mohammed Jama Aldura, cried while his father waved in an attempt to get the gunmen to stop shooting. A French cameraman captured the scene, including the moment when a burst of Israeli gunfire struck and killed the child and critically injured his father.
Israeli Deputy Chief of Staff Major General Moshe Ya’alon later apologized, saying the Israeli soldiers had come under fire from a Palestinian building and did not know the father and son were in the area. He also blamed the Palestinian Authority for its “cynical use of children,” saying he understood that the child had been hurling stones at Israeli soldiers when his father came to get him.
In Netzarim itself, Shlomit Ziv, 30, said residents could hear shooting outside their compound.
“It was a very different Rosh HaShanah for us,” she said. “The army is doing very good. We could daven as usual. When you daven for peace and good times, it’s different when you hear shooting outside. You know what you’re davening for.
“Some of the men had to go out and walk around with their guns. In the afternoon we heard heavy guns shooting. We were told not to go out of our houses and to keep the children inside.”
Because of the gun battle, guests in the compound for the holiday “left by [military] helicopter, and those who wanted to come in came with a helicopter. The helicopter has also brought us milk and bread, and maybe more.”
She said the violence began one day before Sharon’s visit when Palestinians shot and killed an Israeli soldier, David Beri, in the Gaza Strip. Stones and Molotov cocktails were also hurled at the Jewish settlers traveling to their homes, she said.