By TRACY WILKINSON
Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian and Israeli forces fought pitched battles with guns, stones and fire Saturday in clashes that raged across the West Bank and Gaza Strip and left hopes for peace in the Middle East in bloody shambles.
At least 12 Palestinians were killed and more than 500 injured in the third day of violence sparked by the visit of a right-wing Jewish politician to one of the holiest and most sensitive religious sites in Jerusalem. It was the worst fighting between Israelis and Palestinians in years.
And it did not seem likely to end quickly. Emotionally charged funerals were scheduled for toSday, and Arabs who live in Israel announced a general protest strike in sympathy for their Palestinian brothers. A coalition of all major Palestinian factions called for an escalation Monday, a date they regard as the anniversary of Saladin’s liberation of Jerusalem from the Crusaders nearly 900 years ago.
Six Israeli soldiers were injured in Saturday’s clashes, the army said. Two were killed last week in separate incidents.
At midafternoon Saturday, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, chief of staff of the Israeli army, said he had negotiated a truce with top Palestinian security officials. But it collapsed within minutes with renewed fighting in Gaza, the scene throughout the day of the most intense confrontations.
Israeli officials blamed Saturday’s riots, which stretched the length and breadth of Palestinian territory, on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, and they demanded that he restore calm. But Arafat left town, flying to Egypt for consultations there.
Later, Prime Minister Ehud Barak spoke by telephone with Arafat, urging his “personal and immediate intervention” to squelch a violence that threatened to spiral out of control.
In Gaza, near the Jewish settlement of Netzarim, and in Nablus, in the northern West Bank, the fighting escalated into fierce gun battles between Israeli troops and Palestinian police and civilians. Most of the fatalities occurred there, including the deaths of three Palestinian policemen. Israeli forces brought in armored cars and helicopters and fired an anti-tank missile at Palestinian security forces in Gaza.
The three days of violence came after actions by Ariel Sharon, a former general and right-wing Israeli opposition leader reviled in the Arab world. Sharon was the architect of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which cost thousands of Arab lives. On Thursday, he led a heavily guarded delegation onto the sacred Old City compound known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Arabs as the Haram al Sharif.
Palestinians claimed he had defiled the site, and a deadly chain reaction was set in motion. Although Palestinians were blaming Sharon, it was also clear that a deep repository of Arab anger and frustration had been tapped.
“Sharon is one reason,” said Issam Ahmed, a photo lab technician who had come to watch the demonstrations on the northern edge of the West Bank city of Ramallah. “But the more pressure on us, the more we will explode.”