Assigning Blame

The catalyst for a spate of violence here may have been an Israeli politician’s visit to a Muslim and Jewish holy site, but Israeli officials are holding Palestinian leaders directly responsible for the bloodshed.At least 55 people were killed, mostly Palestinians, in rioting that touched off Sept. 28 when Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Bloody riots on the Temple Mount spread to the West Bank, Gaza Strip and parts of Israel, where Israeli Arabs launched their own actions against Israel. Israel’s deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, said he believes the worst fighting is still ahead.

A glimmer of hope came late Wed. in Paris after a somewhat tumultuous three-way meeting involving U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Israel agreed to withdraw its forces to where they were before the violence began.

In return, Palestinians would agree to stay away from two flashpoints on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In addition, both sides would apparently agree to have the CIA find ways to prevent the unrest from escalating.

A more detailed agreement was expected to be signed Thursday in Egypt, where talks will be hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Barak and Arafat also met with United Nation’s Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who warned that Israel was on the brink of “all-out war.”

Arafat also demanded the establishment of a commission of inquiry into soldiers’ conduct.The commission would be made up of Israelis, Palestinians, Americans and members of the European Union.

Israel flatly rejected this condition.

“We don’t need a need a committee biased against Israel to investigate things,” Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin told Israel Radio on Wednesday.

In the midst of the meetings, Barak signaled he was still determined to reach a peace accord but said he held Arafat and the Palestinian Authority “responsible for the uprisings and the wave of violence.”Barak was steadfast in defending Israeli troops, who “defend Israeli citizens who cannot defend themselves alone.” But, “in the meantime, we hold out our hand to peace.”

The general consensus in the Israeli government is that Arafat orchestrated the riots in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for his own political purposes.

In contrast, riots in Israel proper were seen as spontaneous and led by street gangs, with no clear guiding hands.

Although similar confrontations have occurred in the past, the riots that began just before the Rosh Hashanah holiday were unprecedented in their magnitude and in the use of arms.

Palestinian police opened fire on Israel Defense Force (IDF) soldiers in Gaza, Ramallah and Nablus. The IDF responded with live fire, the use of gunships and missiles.

As the fighting intensified Monday, Israeli troops rolled out tanks.

An Israeli Jewish man was shot and killed on the road to the West Bank settlement of Ariel, reportedly when he stopped to change a tire.

The man, not immediately identified, was reportedly the first Jewish civilian killed in the clashes.A brief cease-fire ended Tuesday as gunfire and street-fighting erupted again.

Toward the end of the week, the violence was limited to fewer sites. At least two Palestinians were killed Wednesday in heavy exchange of fire in the Netzarim junction in the Gaza Strip. Journalists were beaten up and cameras were damaged in a demonstration in downtown Jaffa.

In the meantime, Palestinians and Israelis exchanged heavy fire in several places in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israeli Apache gunships fired at Palestinian positions at the Netzarim area, reportedly in response to Palestinian attacks on an Israeli post.

Spirits cooled down Wednesday among Israel’s Arabs, and most roads were reopened to traffic.Arsonists caused more than 100 forest fires in the Galilee over an area of 2,000 acres. Earlier they set alight three factories and scores of vehicles owned by Jews.

JTA correspondent Joshua Schuster in Paris contributed to this report.