PHIL REEVES reports on how a fire-fight between Arabs and Jewish settlers has shaken the summit agreement and its fragile ceasefire
JERUSALEM - It was a scene that the world wanted to avoid. Another Palestinian corpse. A dozen people - Jews and Arabs - with bullet wounds. And Israeli helicopter gunships airborne again and firing their machineguns over the low, dangerous hills and olive groves of the West Bank.
Two days after the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement, it was under a fresh threat yesterday after a pitched battle erupted between Jewish settlers and Palestinians on a hilltop overlooking the Palestinian-controlled city of Nablus.
It is further evidence that maintaining the fragile United States-brokered ceasefire does not only depend on Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's efforts to rein in Palestinian militiamen, or on the Israeli Army pulling back its forces and softening its tactics so that it stops shooting dead civilian rioters, including children.
Continuing battles between Palestinians and Jewish settlers - who include bitterly opposed hard-liners determined to drive one another off the land - could also wreck it. A deadline for a total ceasefire was to expire today. Yesterday saw the second Palestinian death in clashes in the area in 48 hours.
The battle erupted at Mt Ebal - known by Israelis as the Cursed Mountain - and led to a fire-fight of up to seven hours which was so intense that Israeli rescue helicopters were unable to reach all the wounded.
The settlers - numbering about 40 and including women and children - said they were on a hiking trip and the battle started when they were fired upon by Palestinian gunmen from the nearby Askar refugee camp. Palestinians say the settlers descended the hill towards the camp and opened fire on people harvesting olives. Israeli helicopters hovering overhead opened fire with machineguns during the battle. The Army put up road blocks around Nablus to prevent residents from entering or leaving the town.
Also yesterday, a mysterious explosion at the Palestinian security headquarters in Bethlehem killed two soldiers and wounded eight, provoking riots. The incident was officially attributed to an exploding gas canister, which ignited ammunition in the offices of Force 17.
US President Bill Clinton telephoned Arafat to discuss the deal agreed to at the Egyptian summit.
Twelve Palestinian factions including Arafat's Fatah movement and the militant Islamic group Hamas called on Palestinians to attend protests today.
Arab leaders are expected to take a joint stand tomorrow against what Arabs see as Israel's failure to honour peace deals with the Palestinians and what they regard as its excessive use of force to quell protests
Yesterday the top United Nations human rights forum condemned Israel for "war crimes" and "crimes against humanity" in the occupied Palestinian territories and launched a new investigation into the violence.
The Arab-Islamic resolution, narrowly adopted at the UN Commission on Human Rights, sets up a five-member commission of inquiry backed by a team including forensic experts.
UN human rights chief Mary Robinson and seven independent UN investigators will make trips to the region, where at least 108 people have been killed in three weeks of violence. All but seven victims were Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.
Israeli Ambassador Yaakov Levy said the Jewish state would not cooperate with what he called a "superfluous" inquiry.
"There is no call on the Palestinians to stop the violence, the rioting, the use of live ammunition, the use of machineguns, the sending of children to the front lines of rioting crowds or to stop the use of Molotov cocktails."
Israel has loosened the closure of towns within the occupied territories, but a total closure of their borders with Israel is still in force. Yesterday Israel opened up a border crossing to the Palestinian-ruled Gaza Strip to commercial traffic.
But Palestinian officials complained Palestinians were still being prevented from travelling to and from some West Bank towns and an overall closure preventing Palestinian labourers from entering Israel was causing economic hardship.
The mood among the settlers on the Israeli-occupied West Bank - who include some armed extremists - has always tended to be hard-line, but it is rapidly hardening further after the weeks of bloodshed.
"There comes a time when if you want to have peace you have to make war," said Yaacov Hayman, from Itamar, a Jewish settlement on a hilltop south of Nablus in an interview before yesterday's fire-fight.
Hayman, a big bearded man with a pistol at his hip, was born in Hollywood, California, moving to Israel only 13 years ago.
But that does not diminish the zeal which he attaches to his belief that he is living on Jewish land - despite UN resolutions saying otherwise - or his views about his Arab neighbours. "We cannot live in the same country as the Arabs. I don't hate them, I don't love them. But we cannot share the same land." Tensions have spiralled upwards in the past 10 days between the Arabs of Nablus - a stronghold of opposition to Israel - and the settlers on the nearby hilltops by a series of atrocities.
These began after a Palestinian mob desecrated Joseph's Tomb, a shrine revered by religious Jews. On the same day a local settler, Hillel Lieberman, was shot dead and dumped in a cave. Earlier this week, settlers killed a Palestinian - whom Israeli prosecutors say was picking olives - and injured several others.
"We are going in the direction of a big war," said Sarah Gelbard, a London-born settler who lives in Elon Moreh, a settlement of 1500 people overlooking Nablus.
"There is no way we can sign a deal with people who are thirsty for our blood. The Arabs must be made to understand that they must live here on certain conditions, or leave."
There are some 200,000 settlers living in the occupied territories. Over the years, the Israeli Government has spent vast sums of money reinforcing their presence, developing their fortified towns, and building a network of bypass roads skirting Arab areas. They are a civilian occupation force under the permanent protection of the Israeli armed forces.
But the secretarian war in which they play a central part has the capability of pushing the entire region into a longer conflict.
- INDEPENDENT, REUTERS