- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 5, 2000

JERUSALEM Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen faced off yesterday in one of the heaviest gunbattles of the nine-week uprising, shattering the peace of Bethlehem just three weeks before Christmas.
Hours afterward, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat appeared in the Gaza Strip carrying a holstered pistol for the first time since he returned from exile in 1994.
Mr. Arafat said the gesture was an expression of anger over the blocking of a key road by Jewish settlers. The settlers had delayed his drive back to his Gaza City office after a trip to Arab countries.
The fighting in Bethlehem raged for hours early yesterday, starting after Palestinians opened fire on Rachel's Tomb, the burial site of the biblical matriarch, the Israeli army said.
Tension was already running high after a Sunday evening rampage by Jewish settlers in the nearby village of Hussan.
Palestinians in the village had thrown stones and gasoline bombs at Israeli cars on a road leading to Israeli settlements, the Israeli army said. Witnesses said the Jewish settlers responded by entering Hussan with guns and firing on Palestinians.
At one point during the night, Israeli helicopters fired two missiles into a nearby refugee camp where soldiers had spotted Palestinian gunmen. Altogether, 14 Palestinians were wounded in the violence Sunday night and yesterday, two of them seriously.
Also yesterday, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned from a lengthy trip to the United States and said he would announce soon "not in weeks or in months" whether he would be a candidate in elections expected in the spring.
Mr. Netanyahu, the front-runner in recent polls, said Israel "is gripped by fear" and that the most important goal is to "return a feeling of security to every citizen."
An Israeli army spokesman said the assault on Rachel's Tomb was especially grave because it was directed at a religious shrine. "We view this as a very serious incident as this is a holy place for Jews," said Maj. Yarden Vatikay.
The tomb, a fortified compound where Jews pray in the heart of Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem, has been a flash point since violence erupted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in late September.
Other shrines on both sides of the dispute, including mosques and synagogues, have been targeted in a sign of the increasingly religious nature of what is basically a conflict over land.
Authorities in Bethlehem would normally be busy at this time of year hanging decorations in preparation for the thousands of Christian pilgrims who converge on the historic birthplace of Jesus each December.
Nearly all the holiday festivities in Bethlehem have been canceled this year because of the continuing threat of violence.
At Israeli army positions around Rachel's Tomb, bullets from AK47s and higher-caliber weapons left a cascade of pockmarks on metal protectors and armored glass. In the town, several Palestinian homes were riddled with bullet holes and at least one building was damaged by a missile.
Mr. Arafat said the flare-up came in spite of his efforts to reduce the level of violence, which has killed nearly 300 people, most of them Palestinian. He accused Israel of reigniting the violence.
"We agreed to cool it down, especially around Beit Jala, Beit Sahour and Bethlehem. These are holy cities," Mr. Arafat told reporters. Beit Jala and Beit Sahour are near Bethlehem.
Mr. Arafat, who arrived in Gaza from Qatar yesterday, reviewed an honor guard outside his office carrying a German-made machine pistol in a holster tied to his waist. The pistol, once part of Mr. Arafat's signature look, had not been displayed since the Palestinian leader moved to Gaza in 1994 under a peace agreement with Israel.
Asked about the gun, Mr. Arafat said he was carrying it because Jewish settlers had blocked the road from the airport in southern Gaza to his office and had tried to delay his convoy.
"The most important thing is that right now they are closing Salah Edin Road and that is why I am carrying this," he said.
Dozens of settlers protested yesterday along the road, the scene of a deadly bomb attack on a school bus two weeks ago, to protest a rise in attacks on settlements. Some members of Mr. Arafat's Fatah group have said they are targeting settlers in order to get them to abandon their homes.
Around 200,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip among 3 million Palestinians. More than 140 settlements dot the area, where Palestinians hope to build their state.
Palestinians want Israel to dismantle all the settlements to make room for a contiguous Palestine. Mr. Arafat rejected Israeli leader Ehud Barak's proposal at Camp David in July to evacuate some of the settlements and annex others to Israel in a swap for land that is now part of Israel.
Peace Now, an Israeli left-wing group that monitors settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, called in a report yesterday for Israel to dismantle some of the communities even without an agreement, including 16 settlements in the Gaza Strip.
The group said the settler population had grown by more than 50 percent since Israelis and Palestinians reached their first interim peace accord in 1993. That agreement included clauses that the Palestinians interpreted as a freeze on settlement expansion.
Thousands of building offers for West Bank projects have been issued by Mr. Barak's government in the last 17 months alone, the group said.

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