Jerusalem (CNS) In the biggest challenge yet for incoming Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, the Palestinian Authority Thursday launched three "days of anger" against "settlements," or Jewish communities on disputed land.
Rioting flared in Gaza, with demonstrators hurling rocks at Israeli troops, who broke up the protest, an army spokesman told CNS. Two soldiers were hurt by rocks there, and another in a separate incident involving some 300 protestors in northern Samaria. Several Palestinians were reported to have been injured during the clashes.
The spokesman also said a Palestinian motorist was shot dead near Hebron, after he allegedly tried to run down a soldier manning a roadblock. It was not clear whether the incident was related to the protest campaign.
The army was satisfied that the presence of Palestinian security forces had in most cases helped ensure relative calm.
The demonstrations are aimed at confronting Israeli soldiers and "settlers," Palestinian officials said.
PA Information Minister, Yasser Abed Rabbo, said the Palestinians wanted to send a message to Israel that the situation was "on the brink of an irreversible explosion."
Since his victory on May 17, Barak has been preoccupied with coalition talks and has given little attention to resurrecting negotiations with the Palestinians. He has declined to make any firm policy statements, although he has made remarks suggesting settlements will not be uprooted.
PA officials have also expressed concern about the possibility of pro-settlement parties being included in a new government.
Although organizers said the protests would be peaceful, preparations made in advance and calls to people to express their "rage" against settlements suggested violence was expected.
The PA placed its security forces on high alert, told hospitals to be on standby, and screened images from the 1987-1993 uprising (the "intifada") on official television. It has also provided transport to bus protestors to the locations of demonstrations, and imposed business strikes.
"It is unclear to what extent the population will respond to the Palestinian leadership's mobilization campaign," , the Middle East Media and Research Institute said before the protests began, "But the PLO leadership is creating an explosive situation."
Security officials met their PA counterparts in recent days to discuss the demonstrations in the hope of heading off violence. Potential flashpoints are the PA-ruled towns of Bethlehem, Ram'Allah and Hebron. All have Jewish settlements nearby.
Also of concern for Israeli security forces will be the situation in Jerusalem after Friday noon prayers at the mosques on the Temple Mount. Fiery "sermons" by PA-appointed clerics have in the past triggered clashes between Arabs and Israeli police.
PA parliament speaker Ahmed Qureia said on Wednesday the Palestinians would not resume negotiations until the expansion of settlement was stopped.
He queried Barak's silence on the outgoing government decision to extend by four square miles the boundaries of Ma'ale Adumim, a small town in disputed territory east of Jerusalem.
The expansion will link the community to the capital, and effectively block Palestinian attempts to extend Arab residential areas from Hebron and Bethlehem in the south, around Jerusalem's eastern flank, to Ram'Allah in the north.
Israel and the PA both said each would hold the other responsible for any violence.
Marwoun Barghouti, secretary-general of Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction of the PLO, upped the temperature by calling settlements "an organized, criminal act of terrorism" and "a massacre against human beings and land."
Pamphlets issues by Fatah said the protests would "ignite the land under [the settlers'] feet until they leave our land forever."
The Islamist movement, Hamas, has also backed the protest action, saying in a statement that "confrontation is the best way to obtain our rights."
Yediot Ahronot said in a commentary the protest was intended to send a message to Barak not to ignore the Palestinians: "We are here, and if you forget us, we will remind you by means of violence."
Noting that Palestinians were more pleased with Netanyahu's defeat than with Barak's victory, the Hebrew-language daily said they were suspicious the new prime minister would turn out to have similar positions to those of his predecessor.
They were also concerned Barak would put his energies into making peace with Syria and Lebanon, sidelining the Palestinians in the process.
Ma'ariv predicted that the protest was "the beginning of a rolling snowball that is liable to accrue momentum and reach the point of confrontations between [Palestinian] activists on the ground and Israel."