Police fire rubber bullets at Palestinian demonstrators

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

JERUSALEM -- Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at Palestinian demonstrators protesting an Israeli security barrier in the West Bank on Monday, and police found the body of a soldier they suspect was kidnapped and killed by Arabs.

The protest came ahead of a summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Bush on Tuesday. The two will discuss how to move ahead with the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan that calls for a Palestinian state by 2005.

About 200 people -- 140 Palestinians and 60 foreign supporters -- protested at the security fence 10 miles west of the West Bank town of Jenin on Monday.

Several tried to cut or push through the fence, and Israeli soldiers fired rubber bullets and tear gas, dispersing the crowd.

The security fence is a major sticking point between Israelis and Palestinians. Israelis say the barrier, which is still being constructed, is needed to stop militants from entering Israel to carry out attacks.

The Israeli newspaper Maariv reported on Monday that Israel would offer to freeze construction of a section of the fence that drives deep into the West Bank, but a government spokesman called the report "speculations."

The barrier sweeps into Palestinian areas of the West Bank to encircle Jewish settlements, and Palestinians say the project amounts to a land-grab that cuts them off from agricultural fields, towns and jobs.

Body found

Also, Israeli police on Monday found the body of a soldier who had been missing for a week. Hundreds of police, soldiers and volunteers had been searching for him, and the investigation focused on suspicions he was kidnapped and killed by Arabs.

The body of Oleg Shaichat, 20, who disappeared July 21, was found buried in northern Israel, said police spokesman Gil Kleiman.

Security officials have warned they have intelligence warnings of militants' intentions to kidnap Israeli soldiers.

"We are talking about a murder with nationalist motives," said Yaakov Borovski, northern region police commander.

Shaichat's disappearance followed the kidnapping of an Israeli taxi-driver by Palestinians on July 11. The cabbie was freed by Israeli commandos, and officials said main Palestinian militant groups were not involved.

The soldier was last seen by a fellow hitchhiker traveling in a car near the biblical village of Cana in the Galilee, on his way to his home in a nearby Jewish suburb of Nazareth, Israel's largest Arab city.

His gun was missing when he was found, Israel Radio reported. No public ransom demands or claims of responsibility have been made in the case.

Peaceful protest

In Gaza City, about 400 people protested peacefully, calling for the release of all 7,700 Palestinians in Israeli jails, many for alleged roles in terror attacks.

The prisoners have become a top rallying point for Palestinians. Israel has released about 250 prisoners and is preparing to release a reported 600 more in coming days. Palestinian officials call for a wider mass release.

The main Palestinian militant groups declared a cease-fire on June 29 after nearly three years of violence, but progress on the road map has been slowed by disagreement between Israel and the Palestinians over what should be the next step.

Both sides were hoping the combination of Sharon's visit with Bush on Tuesday and a meeting last week between Bush and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas would help break the impasse. Bush has called strongly for progress in the peacemaking.

Pledged withdrawal

In conciliatory steps ahead of Sharon's summit with Bush, Israel pledged to withdraw from two additional West Bank towns, and on Sunday dismantled three West Bank roadblocks. Israel has already pulled troops out of parts of Gaza and the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

Sharon's government says the steps would demonstrate to Bush Israel's determination to move ahead with the road map and encourage the president to push for concessions from the Palestinians.

"We hope for pressure on the Palestinians to do what they need to do and what they committed to do," Pazner said.

The road map calls for other Israeli moves -- such as a complete freeze on construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and a dismantling of all the outposts erected throughout the West Bank since 2001. Israel is also supposed to gradually withdraw from the autonomous areas it has seized.

Sharon's position is that taking any further steps is too risky while Israel still faces the threat of attack, meaning that first the Palestinians must disarm militant groups as called for in the road map.

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