- The Washington Times - Friday, October 20, 2000

JERUSALEM A fierce firefight raged for hours between Israelis and Palestinians near the West Bank town of Nablus yesterday, bringing the 2-day-old cease-fire brokered by President Clinton on Tuesday to the brink of collapse.
Israeli forces brought in helicopter gunships in defense of a group of Israeli settlers, including children, who were pinned down for hours on a rocky hilltop during fighting that killed one Israeli and one Palestinian.
Israel last night instructed Palestinians to evacuate certain neighborhoods of Nablus in what looked like the prelude to an air strike.
Israeli officials said the fighting began when Palestinian gunmen opened fire on the group of about 30 Israeli settlers, who had taken their children for a nature hike in the tense area near Joseph's Tomb, scene of some of the heaviest fighting of the past three weeks.
Palestinian spokesmen said it was the settlers who first opened fire, setting off a new cycle of violence just as the 48-hour countdown for the implementation of a U.S.-brokered truce was set to expire.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak called the incident "very grave and a flagrant violation by the Palestinian Authority" of the agreement reached Tuesday in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el Sheik.
Israel said the residents of the Kedumim settlement in the West Bank, among them children, were on a holiday hike on a hill that overlooks Palestinian-ruled Nablus.
The Israeli army said the hikers came under fire from Nablus and were pinned down for hours on the hilltop, using rocks as cover, while soldiers tried to free them and evacuate the wounded.
Israeli helicopter gunships fired machine guns several times during the battle, which continued past nightfall. At least three Israelis and about 15 Palestinians were wounded, Israeli and Palestinian sources said.
Israeli television broadcast dramatic images of the gunbattle. Some of the Israelis used cellular telephones to describe the fighting as they huddled in their hiding places, with gunfire echoing in the background.
"It is really scary. There is one person injured, and we are waiting for help," one woman said, four hours into the fighting.
The Nablus violence came as life was beginning to return to normal in many parts of the Palestinian territories. It prompted Mr. Barak to again call on conservative parties to join his coalition in a "national emergency government."
The call went unheeded, leaving Mr. Barak to face a parliamentary vote on early elections at the end of the month.
Dan Meridor, head of parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said the standoff near Nablus proved that Mr. Arafat had no intention of quelling violence.
"Here is the test. Why doesn't he stand up and stop it?" he asked.
Israeli analysts said Mr. Arafat needed to keep the violence simmering in order to appear strong as he heads for an Arab summit tomorrow in Cairo.
Senior Palestinian negotiator Mahmoud Abbas told reporters that Palestinians expect Arab leaders to declare their full support for Mr. Arafat's positions in peace talks with Israel and create a "mechanism to seek wider international backing."
One draft resolution for the Cairo summit published in a Lebanese newspaper listed clauses that call for:
Halting all relations with Israel and saying no to further normalization.
Placing 100 percent of the blame for the latest cycle of violence on the Jewish state.
Condemning Israel for its disregard of Christian and Muslim holy places.
But while the decisions might boost Mr. Arafat, some analysts said he had to be wary that the resolution not tie his hands in future negotiations with the Israelis.
"They might hug him so warmly that they won't leave him any more room to maneuver," said Shai Feldman, director of the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies.
Mr. Meridor said Mr. Arafat wanted to use violence for political gains without burning bridges to Washington.
"He doesn't want to kill all that he has built with the Americans. I think he wants to keep it both ways. But he wants to use violence to negotiate because he didn't get what he wants in the negotiations," he said.
Mr. Feldman said he thought Mr. Arafat would like to come to the Arab summit "with smoke and fire and the struggle of the liberation."
But, he said, the pressure for moderation placed on him by Arab leaders such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah might be too great for him to resist.

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