JERUSALEM — Palestinian protesters smashed the plate-glass fronts of three Israeli-owned banks, stoned police and crippled traffic in Jerusalem's predominantly Arab eastern sector with roadblocks and burning tires Saturday. It was the worst rioting here in at least a decade.
The demonstrations, involving hundreds of protesters and lasting for about four hours, appeared to catch city officials off guard despite the fact that unrest has rocked the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan River and Gaza Strip for the past 11 days.
Protests continued in several locations in the occupied territories Saturday, although casualties were apparently the lightest since the trouble began Dec. 9. At least 17 Palestinians have died from Israeli army gunfire since then.
Mayor Teddy Kollek said that a tiny minority of Jerusalem's 130,000 Arab residents had organized Saturday's violence in hopes of disrupting tourism, which is normally heavy during the Christmas season.
Three policemen were said to have been slightly injured in the clashes, and 33 protesters were arrested.
"It's a severe blow, but we don't have to exaggerate," the mayor told reporters. "No one was (seriously) hurt and no one was killed."
Kollek also said that the controversial move last week of rightist Cabinet minister Ariel Sharon into a part-time, rented apartment in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's walled Old City had also aroused Palestinian passions.
Given the outbreaks of unrest in the occupied territories, he added, "any event could light a fire. And the Sharon event is more than a match."
Kollek opposed Sharon's move and boycotted a housewarming Hanukkah party that the former defense minister held for about 100 friends and notables.
Israel captured East Jerusalem, including the walled Old City, from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War, which is also when it occupied the West Bank and Gaza. The government quickly annexed the eastern part of the city and declared Jerusalem to be Israel's united and eternal capital. The Israeli claim is not recognized by most countries, including the United States, which hold that Jerusalem's status must be determined in Middle East peace negotiations.
Saturday's demonstrations started at about 8 a.m. in A-Tur, an Arab village on the Mount of Olives at the eastern edge of the city, where high school youths burned tires and set up barricades.
The protest quickly spread to East Jerusalem's main shopping section along Saladin Street, where police fired scores of rounds of tear gas to disperse stone-throwing crowds of mostly young Palestinians, who quickly fled into adjacent side streets and alleys.
The situation was back under control by about noon, but as dusk approached, municipal cleanup crews were still trying to clear some streets in the Arab sector of barricades made from rocks, burning debris and overturned garbage bins.
At Barclay's Israel Discount Bank, an armed guard watched while employees picked through the glass and rubble left by protesters who smashed the plate-glass front of the building and tried to set fire to documents inside.
"They wrecked everything," a bank employee said with a shake of his head. "There isn't a computer or an adding machine that isn't broken." The employee declined to place a value on the extent of the damage.
East Jerusalem branch offices of two other Israeli institutions, Bank Leumi and Bank Hapoalim, were also targeted by the demonstrators and suffered extensive damage. Arab-owned businesses throughout the area were untouched, and the only other building vandalized during the disturbances was a Jewish-owned restaurant on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
"It was a well-organized operation," one Palestinian journalist said. He said that tires for use in flaming roadblocks had been stashed in empty buildings as long as two days ago.
On the West Bank, there were disturbances reported in Nablus, Jenin, Hebron and Bethlehem. The army imposed curfews on three Palestinian refugee camps. In most cases, troops used tear gas to disperse demonstrators, although the Palestine Press Service claimed that two Arabs were wounded by army gunfire near Bethlehem. The claim could not be immediately corroborated.
In the Gaza Strip, which has been the site of the worst violence during the last 11 days, there were only scattered disturbances Saturday, with the army maintaining a much more discreet presence than it had the day before, when two Palestinians died in clashes after mosque services.
The situation in Gaza was far from normal, however. A senior U.N. official noted that only 16 of 146 schools operated by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency there functioned "with reasonable attendance" Saturday, a regular class day.
Meanwhile, the government's handling of the unrest in the occupied territories triggered two large protests inside Israel on Saturday.
An estimated 3,000 supporters of the leftist Peace Now and Citizens Rights Movements demonstrated in Tel Aviv, and a similar number gathered at a Communist Party-sponsored rally in mostly Arab Nazareth earlier in the day.