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Arab Unrest Spreads Into Israel's Heartland : Strike Staged in Solidarity With Gaza Strip, West Bank Protests; 4 More Palestinians Die

December 22, 1987|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

BETHLEHEM, Israeli-Occupied West Bank — The violence that has shaken the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip for nearly two weeks claimed the lives of four Palestinians on Monday and spread for the first time from the occupied territories into the country's heartland.

The fresh unrest was provoked when Arabs who live and work inside Israel's boundaries went on strike in solidarity with Palestinians living in the occupied territories. It followed two days of diminished violence, which had given government officials hope that the worst was behind them.

The latest casualties were expected to spur international assertions that Israel is using unreasonable force to put down what is now commonly viewed as the most widespread civil unrest here in 20 years.

'Restrained' Response

They occurred a day after a government statement that it was dealing with the situation "in a way that is more restrained than any other government in the world in similar circumstances."

(In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Phyllis Oakley read a written statement Monday that said:

("We urge and hope that both sides will exercise restraint. The high level of frustration points out the need to maintain efforts to bring about a comprehensive peace that will satisfy the legitimate aspirations for peace and security by all peoples of the region.")

After Monday's violence, a senior army officer said that official restraint had been interpreted by the Arabs as weakness, and he promised a more rigorous crackdown, which is expected to include extensive arrests and deportations.

Also, Monday's protests raised fresh questions about the loyalties of Israel's 700,000 Arab citizens who make up about 17% of the country's population and who have long complained of discrimination.

Here in the city revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, Mayor Elias Freij announced cancellation of Bethlehem's traditional Christmas Eve reception for the first time in his 16 years in office.

"There is a very tense, bad situation here," Freij said during a brief interview outside his office on nearly deserted Manger Square. "The town is completely closed. There is a total strike against the (Israeli) occupation and its circumstances. It would not be fitting to have a reception with so many deaths, so many sorrows."

Monday's casualties brought to 19 the officially confirmed number of Palestinians killed by army gunfire since the trouble began Dec. 9. Three of the four new dead fell in Monday's West Bank clashes, while the fourth died in the hospital from wounds suffered in Gaza 13 days ago, the army said. Palestinian sources put the death toll at 22.

20 Palestinians Wounded

The military command said that 26 other Palestinians were wounded Monday, at least two of them critically, when soldiers opened fire to save themselves from what were described as life-threatening situations.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir adopted an optimistic stance despite the renewed violence. "We don't have to be discouraged or afraid," Shamir commented during a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony for new immigrants in Jerusalem. "We have been in much, much worse situations, and we have come out brilliantly. I have no doubt we will also overcome this situation."

An aide to Shamir said: "It was almost dying two or three days ago when this strike of Israeli Arabs fueled it again. So it will take a few more days (before) we will . . . be able to restore peace to all the areas."

Not All So Optimistic

Other officials were less sanguine, particularly in light of the participation of Israeli Arabs in Monday's unrest.

"We are planning to make clear to the (Palestinian) public, through actions, that we cannot tolerate disturbances and disruptions of the whole fabric of daily life," said the senior army officer. "This cannot happen again."

Asked if the government was taking the situation seriously, a Foreign Ministry official responded, "It's going to be taken more seriously after today, because when it starts within Israel, it gets a totally different dimension."

Israel radio reported that the strike by an estimated 170,000 Israeli Arab workers was "almost complete." About 115,000 Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, who usually work in Israel proper, have mostly stayed off the job since the unrest began earlier this month.

Preliminary estimates by government economic officials indicated that the combined strike Monday had cut the country's economic output for the day by between 5% and 7%.

Production Affected

In some sectors where the Arab work force is particularly high, such as the construction and garment industries, the percentage drop in production was reportedly much higher. Even here in Bethlehem, where shops would normally be catering to an influx of Christmas tourists, the strike was complete, extending even to businesses on little-used side streets.

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