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Palestinians Scuffle With Soldiers Over Israeli Construction Project

Mideast: Confrontations, while tense, remain controlled. Arafat lambastes East Jerusalem housing in speech to lawmakers.

March 21, 1997|REBECCA TROUNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Feras Jihad, 14, carefully selected a small, smooth stone for the slingshot he had crafted. Suddenly, the Palestinian boy dashed out from behind a wall, swung the weapon around his head and hurled the rock toward Israeli soldiers crouched across an open field.

He missed. But neither he nor his friends seemed to care.

"We are defending our land," Ayman Ismail, 15, said proudly of the boys' decision to join a group of demonstrators confronting Israeli troops here Thursday. "We want to express our feelings about the mountain in Jerusalem."

Two days after Israel began clearing a hill to build Jewish homes in traditionally Arab East Jerusalem, a crowd of several hundred Palestinians--most of them youths--gathered in this nearby city to protest. But in vivid contrast to last fall's deadly gun battles in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, both the Israeli soldiers and the Palestinian police showed relative restraint.

The Palestinian police, who ultimately dispersed the protesters, appeared to have contained local anger over the building project--at least for the moment. But more demonstrations are planned for today, and Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordecai warned Thursday that new violence could follow Friday prayers at local mosques.

Standing in the Palestinian-controlled area of Bethlehem, the demonstrators hurled rocks, a few Molotov cocktails and a variety of insults at Israelis guarding the Tomb of Rachel, a biblical matriarch. The troops fired back with tear gas, sound grenades, water cannons and rubber bullets.

Hospital officials in Bethlehem said about 20 people were treated for smoke inhalation and burns, the latter caused when demonstrators picked up tear-gas canisters to toss back at the soldiers. One person was struck by a rubber bullet, officials said. An Israeli border police officer was slightly injured during a second, smaller demonstration in Beit Ummar near Hebron.

Palestinians have been angered by Israel's decision to press ahead with the building project at the site, known as Har Homa in Hebrew and Jabal Abu Ghneim in Arabic. But most have followed calls by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and other officials to refrain from violence.

Israel says the 6,500 new apartments for Jews will help alleviate a housing shortage in Jerusalem. Palestinians say the plan is an effort to create "facts on the ground," increasing the number of Jews in East Jerusalem to keep it from ever becoming the capital of a Palestinian state.

On Thursday, the Palestinian police in Bethlehem lost control briefly when a group of demonstrators broke through a barrier and moved toward the Israelis, but officers soon managed to reassert their authority. They abided by their orders not to shoot, and they stood their ground even when angry young compatriots shouted at them to stand back.

Arafat, however, expressed anger in an unusually strong speech Thursday to Palestinian legislators. The Palestinian leader accused the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of using "trickery" in the peace process.

"There will be no peace without Jerusalem," Arafat warned.

The Bethlehem unrest, which lasted about three hours, was reminiscent of the intifada, the six-year Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation that started in 1987.

At one point, an Israeli soldier, his M-16 rifle at the ready, ran full tilt toward a group of Palestinians. Onlookers held their breath. But the soldier suddenly stopped, picked up a rock and flung it at his tormentors.

"It's just a game here," said resident Rima Khano, 35, who watched the scene from the street near her home. "I support all these young people, but it's a big mess, really, with no benefit to anyone. In the end, [the Israelis] do what they want."

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