RAMALLAH, West Bank Carefully orchestrated Palestinian protests spun out of control yesterday and escalated into gunbattles between Israeli troops and Palestinian police that killed four Palestinians and injured more than 330 people.
At one West Bank junction, Israeli snipers commandeered a Palestinian-run hotel and took aim at Palestinian gunmen holed up in buildings nearby. Hotel guests and staff, including nine Americans, were trapped in the lobby. One Palestinian guest who ventured out was wounded by sniper fire.
Last night, Palestinians fired hundreds of shots and threw firebombs at Joseph’s Tomb, an Israeli enclave in the West Bank town of Nablus. Israeli soldiers fired back, and one Palestinian was killed, hospital officials said.
Witnesses said about eight Israeli armored personnel carriers moved toward Nablus from a nearby army base, but did not enter the Palestinian-ruled city. The clash ended when Palestinian police formed a line in front of the demonstrators and persuaded them to disperse.
Across the Palestinian lands, thousands battled Israeli soldiers with rocks and firebombs. Streets were littered with stones, and white clouds of tear gas and black smoke from burning tires rose into the air. Helmeted Israeli soldiers took aim from behind trash bins, and Palestinian gunmen, some in civilian clothes, fired from behind buildings and bushes.
Two Palestinian policemen and two Palestinian demonstrators were killed in the clashes.
At least 337 persons were injured. Palestinian hospital officials said they had treated 323 Palestinians, and the Israeli army said 14 soldiers were hurt, including several hit by bullets.
Despite the worst violence in years, Israel’s Cabinet and parliament approved the hand-over of three West Bank villages near Jerusalem to Palestinian rule. Prime Minister Ehud Barak sought the transfer as a goodwill gesture to the Palestinians at a time when peace talks were being conducted in Stockholm.
U.S. officials denied reports that State Department mediator Dennis Ross was in Stockholm to take part in the talks.
The two sides are trying to formulate an overdue blueprint for a peace treaty. The chief Palestinian negotiator, Yasser Abed Rabbo, who was not invited to Stockholm, resigned in protest yesterday, saying Israel was trying to sow division among the Palestinians by setting up rival negotiating channels.
In exchange for the Jerusalem suburbs, Mr. Barak wants the Palestinians to postpone negotiations on an additional troop pullback in the West Bank, which is due in June, and instead focus on reaching a peace treaty framework.
Israeli and Palestinian leaders traded blame for yesterday’s violence, but the rhetoric was relatively mild, considering the scope of the bloodshed. Last night, Mr. Barak called Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to inform him of the 56-48 parliament vote approving the land transfer and asked him to restrain his men, a Palestinian official said.
Yesterday’s events began with marches by thousands of Palestinians marking “al-Nakba,” the Arabic word for catastrophe that is how Palestinians describe Israel’s founding and the beginning of their displacement 52 years ago.
The protests were organized by several Palestinian factions, with Mr. Arafat’s Fatah movement taking the lead. Israeli officials suggested that Mr. Arafat had intended nothing more than a warning to Israel that delays in reaching a peace treaty are dangerous, and that the demonstrations had spun out of control.
“When violence breaks out, even if connected to an anniversary, it is hard to stop it,” said Israel’s deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh.
Despite the upsurge in violence, the Clinton administration equally praised Mr. Arafat and Mr. Barak as being peace-minded.
“We are concerned about the violence and particularly regret the loss of life,” spokesman Richard Boucher said. “But the parties themselves have committed a serious effort, and are committed to a serious effort at the negotiating table.”
In recent days, tensions have been rising among Palestinians, in part because of slow-moving peace talks and Israel’s refusal to release more Palestinian prisoners at this stage.
Mr. Barak said he would not be deterred by the violence and would forge ahead with the peace talks. However, he said he would only hand over the three West Bank villages Abu Dis, Izzarieh and Sawahra a-Sharkieh after the violence abates.
Tayeb Abdel Rahim, a senior aide to Mr. Arafat, blamed Israel for the violence and denied that the Palestinian Authority organized the protests.
The violence began around 10 a.m. yesterday, after a two-minute siren rang out across the Palestinian lands in commemoration of “al-Nakba.”
Demonstrators walked toward Israeli army positions and Jewish settlements. In at least five locations the West Bank towns of Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin and Bethlehem and the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in Gaza gunbattles erupted. It was the worst violence since al-Nakba protests in May 1998, when five persons were killed.
The fiercest clash erupted outside the West Bank town of Ramallah. At first, about 400 Palestinians hurled stones and firebombs.
“We went out and threw stones at the soldiers,” said Fayez Akub, a 30-year-old marketing student who was hit in the face with a rubber bullet. “There was a lot of anger and frustration, then the soldiers started shooting heavily.”