By MOHAMMED DARAGHMEH
NABLUS, West Bank – Defying an Israeli deadline for a truce, Palestinian gunmen and rock-throwers attacked Israeli soldiers at West Bank checkpoints today, and seven Palestinians were killed and several wounded by massive Israeli return fire. It was the deadliest day of fighting in two weeks.
In the worst clash, south of the West Bank town of Nablus, gunmen hiding behind olive trees opened fire on Israeli soldiers just moments after a 4 p.m. deadline for a truce expired. Israeli soldiers returned fire, and four Palestinians were killed.
Two Palestinians, ages 13 and 17, were killed by Israeli fire in rock-throwing clashes in the West Bank town of Ramallah and the village of Salfit. Both were killed by shots to the head. A 16-year-old stone-thrower was also killed in the town of Qalqiliya, bringing the day’s death toll to seven.
President Clinton had hoped that a truce would take hold before the weekend and eventually pave the way for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But today’s gun battles quelled hopes that the 3-week-old fighting would end soon. The violence has left 111 people dead, the vast majority Palestinians.
Israel has said its troops have shown great restraint, while the Palestinians have accused Israeli soldiers of using excessive force. In addition to those killed, hundreds of Palestinians have been injured.
Israeli officials made no immediate announcement about whether they would declare the truce a failure. Prime Minister Ehud Barak has said that if the Palestinians do not stop the riots, he will see this as a decision by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to halt peace negotiations.
A government spokesman, Avi Pazner, blamed the violence on Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, which he said had encouraged rioters in the streets.
“We see that the incidents are getting worse as a direct result of the behavior of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority,” Pazner said. He added he didn’t know when the government would take action. He spoke after nightfall, the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath.
Barak did, however, hold an unscheduled meeting with Likud opposition leader Ariel Sharon, who has repeatedly said he would reject participating in an emergency unity government. Entering the meeting, Barak said he thought the chances now of a unity government were “very good, but it takes two.”
“The people need this, the nation needs this,” he said.
The commander of Israeli forces in the West Bank, Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Eitan, said earlier today that Israeli soldiers would respond with force to cease-fire violations, especially by the Tanzim militiamen linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement.
“If the Palestinians won’t stop the Tanzim movement from shooting at our forces, we will not have any choice but to shoot back,” he said.
In the past three weeks, the Tanzim gunmen have been taking the lead in attacks on Israeli positions.
The violence came on the eve of an Arab summit in Cairo, a gathering Arafat has sought as a show of broad support for the Palestinian cause. Israeli officials have accused Arafat of orchestrating the violence to improve his standing in the eyes of Arab leaders leading up to the summit.
At the Mideast emergency summit earlier this week, Israel and the Palestinians had agreed that there would be a two-day transition period leading to a cease-fire.
Israel initially did not set a specific deadline, but Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami announced today that Israel expected the truce to take hold by 4 p.m.
“We don’t care about the deadline,” said Teissir Natche, 17, a stone thrower in Hebron. “We just want a Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital.”
Moments after the deadline passed, the gunfire began.
In Ramallah, some 2,000 demonstrators marched toward an Israeli checkpoint, unleashing a barrage of stones at troops there. Within minutes, about 20 Palestinians were injured by Israeli rubber bullets.
Groups of rioters overturned burned car wrecks again and again, using them as cover to approach the Israeli positions. One Palestinian teen-ager who had taken cover behind a wreck was struck in the head by a live bulllet that killed him instantly. Soldiers continued shooting as other Palestinians tried to evacuate the body.
In a moment of lull, a young rioter crouched behind one of the wrecks to adjust his green headband which signals support for the Islamic militant group Hamas.
Faisal Husseini, a senior Palestinian official, accused Israel of provoking Palestinian demonstrators. “Don’t ask him (Arafat) to control his people while there is shooting, killing of Palestinian demonstrators, killing of children sometimes,” Husseini told CNN.
Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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