Peace Talks Continue Despite Palestinian Violence

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - While diplomats talk about peace in the Middle East, some of the worst violence in years is happening in disputed parts of the West Bank, where Israeli soldiers tangled again on Tuesday with Palestinians throwing rocks and firebombs.

In other developments on Tuesday, US envoy Dennis Ross continued mediating talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but reports that secret peace talks are taking place in Stockholm, Sweden so infuriated one Palestinian Authority negotiator, that he resigned on Monday.

Yasser Abed Rabbo had been leading the Palestinians in their talks with Israel on permanent status issues.

The PA Ministry of Information told that PA Chairman Yasser Arafat had rejected Abed Rabbo's resignation after a meeting of the PLO Executive Committee on Monday evening.

According to a statement from ministry, Abed Rabbo sent a letter to Arafat, saying that he was resigning in order to prevent "the existence of more than one negotiating channel."

Abed Rabbo said he hoped to "abort" an "Israeli ploy" to create "loopholes" in the Palestinian position, particularly after the PA rejected Israeli maps, which offered the PA a state comprising three separate cantons.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told a press briefing the Clinton administration had a "great deal of respect" for Abed Rabbo and hoped he would continue in the negotiations.

Boucher would not confirm or deny that secret talks were taking place but he did say the U.S. had been "involved in helping the Israelis and Palestinians work through a variety of interim and permanent status issues ... in a variety of ways."

However, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Larry Schwartz, told the Stockholm talks were "clearly trying to make progress on issues out of the limelight."

Schwartz said he could not confirm reports that Ross was involved in the talks in Sweden, but he said Ross was trying help the sides achieve a "framework" agreement within the next few weeks.

Ross is due to return to Washington this week to brief President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, ahead of a trip to Washington by Barak next week.

According to the State Department, Albright may yet travel to the Middle East although no dates have been set for her trip.

Rioting Continues

No casualties were immediately reported Tuesday, in the violence that erupted between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians throwing rocks and firebombs in disputed West Bank locations.

But at least three Palestinians were killed and more than 320 injured as they rioted throughout the disputed West Bank and in PA-controlled cities on Monday, hurling stones and firebombs at Israeli soldiers who responded by firing rubber bullets and teargas.

The Palestinians were marking al-Nakba, Arabic for "the Catastrophe," which they say befell the Palestinian people when the State of Israel was established 52 years ago.

Battles quickly escalated when PA police fired live ammunition at Israeli soldiers, who responded in kind. Fourteen Israelis were injured in various battles, including several wounded by the live fire.

The State Department expressed concern about the violence but said it remained convinced that both Israel and the PA are committed to peace negotiations.

Boucher admitted that Arafat had "obviously faced some difficulties" in controlling the organized demonstrations.

It was widely believed in Israel that the protests of recent days have been an attempt by the PA at muscle-flexing, intended as a warning to the Israelis. Analysts disagreed on the question of whether Arafat had actually lost control.

Calm Must Precede Transfer

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak contacted Arafat after the rioting and told him the transfer of three Arab villages alongside Jerusalem - approved by the Knesset on Monday night - would not take place until the violence of the past few days was completely investigated, according to a statement from his office.

Barak told Arafat that the villages would not be transferred until order was restored in the territories, Israel television reported.

Israeli lawmakers voted 56-48 to hand over the villages of Abu Dis, Eizariya and Suwahara to full PA-control. Until now, the PA has maintained civilian control while Israel has held onto security control in the villages.

Coalition In Danger

Barak saw the vote to transfer the Arab villages as a vote of confidence in the government, calling it a victory for his coalition. In his speech to the Knesset, he tried to persuade opponents that giving away the villages would not weaken the capital.

Barak already has lost one coalition partner over the deal. The five-member National Religious Party announced its intention to leave the government over the Abu Dis concession, narrowing his majority.

The four-member Israel B'Aliya faction may also leave the government. Spokesman David Shechter told the party's branch heads would meet next week to decide the matter.

While giving away the three villages might seem a "small step" as far as total territory was concerned, Shechter said, it was a "giant step" at this time for security and other reasons.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered for a peaceful rally in central Jerusalem on Monday evening to protest further land concessions. Israel B'Aliya leader Natan Sharansky was among those who addressed the crowd.