Ethan Bronner, Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
September 22, 2010 - 12:00am

JERUSALEM — With Israel’s construction freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank scheduled to end this weekend, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were seeking an elusive formula on Wednesday to keep their peace talks going while both sides warned that if the talks ended, violence could erupt.

As if to illustrate that warning, Palestinians clashed with Israeli security forces in and around the Old City of Jerusalem on Wednesday after an Israeli security guard fatally shot a Palestinian resident of Silwan, a volatile and hotly contested East Jerusalem neighborhood where a few hundred Jewish settlers live among tens of thousands of Palestinians.

The guard told the police that he had opened fire in self-defense after being ambushed by stone-throwers before dawn. But Palestinians said there were signs that the dead man, Samer Sirhan, 32, had been chased by the guard, and Palestinian spokesmen accused the Israeli settlers of carrying out provocations in order to heat up the atmosphere and divert attention away from the issue of Israeli settlement construction.

Mr. Sirhan, a father of five, was a member of Fatah, the mainstream Palestinian party engaged in the peace talks with Israel.

The Palestinian leadership has said that the 10-month moratorium must be extended for the talks to progress, and that if settlement construction started again next week it would prove that the Israeli government was not serious about making peace.

The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has responded that such talk is evidence of Palestinian insincerity, saying that the moratorium was a gesture aimed at making it easier for the Palestinians to enter direct talks. Since they waited nine months before taking advantage of it, walking out on the talks now would prove that they were not serious about peace.

Efforts by the Obama administration to get Mr. Netanyahu to extend the freeze have so far been rejected.

“The end of the freeze is a test case for the concept of compromise,” Dan Meridor, Israel’s minister for strategic affairs, said this week. “Neither side will get all it wants.”

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, has often said that once building begins again, he will end the peace talks. But on Tuesday, he spoke to American Jewish leaders in New York and did not insist that the end of the freeze meant the end of the talks.

“I cannot say I will leave the negotiations, but it’s very difficult for me to resume talks if Prime Minister Netanyahu declares that he will continue his activity in the West Bank and Jerusalem,” he told the leaders.

Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who was at the meeting with Mr. Abbas, said by telephone that he was impressed by two things: that the Palestinian president referred to Mr. Netanyahu as “my partner” and that he appeared to be seeking a way to stay at the negotiations even if some building began. On other issues, like Jerusalem and naming Israel a Jewish state, Mr. Foxman said Mr. Abbas did not please him.

On Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, Israel’s military chief of staff, told a parliamentary committee that if the peace talks, begun in Washington three weeks ago, ran aground, he expected a wave of anti-Israel attacks in the West Bank, although not on the scale of a decade ago after the breakdown of similar talks, and not necessarily right away.

The Israeli military has increased its presence in the West Bank since Hamas gunmen shot dead four settlers driving on the main north-south road near Hebron just as the new talks were about to start. Palestinian security forces arrested suspects in the settler killings, a move praised by the Israelis.

Relations between the two forces have been improving and the streets have been calm. Wednesday’s events in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan in which Mr. Sirhan was killed exposed underlying tensions, however.

Women and children screamed and wailed as dozens of enraged young men bore Mr. Sirhan’s body in a simple, open green coffin up a narrow alleyway and stairs leading to his father’s house. The body was then carried to Mr. Sirhan’s house before being taken for burial.

The disturbances then spread. In the Old City, the police briefly entered the sacred compound revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary to push back protesters. Eight Israeli passers-by were lightly injured by stones in other East Jerusalem neighborhoods, and one was stabbed in the back, the police said.

After the killing, Ghassan Khatib, spokesman for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, said that the presence of “heavily armed settlers in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods” paved the way for “such crimes.”


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