Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - A Jewish holy site under full Israeli sovereignty came under sustained Palestinian fire early Monday, as shooting attacks erupted on Israelis at flashpoints in the West Bank.
The renewed violence came after Washington pledged over the weekend its unfailing devotion to the Middle East diplomatic process despite the fact that President Clinton's term is rapidly running out.
In other developments, Palestinian groups called for an escalation in violence and Israel agreed to allow a U.S.-led fact finding commission to begin work even while the conflict continued.
A late-night attack on the traditional burial site of the Biblical matriarch, Rachel, prompted Israel to send helicopters to attack "terrorist targets" in Bethlehem, according to an Israeli army statement.
The army spokesman's office said the shooting was "severe" and "well-planned," with gunmen firing from three different directions. It was also regarded as a grave development because it occurred at a holy site, protected by a signed Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
The gunmen had been trying to force the Israelis to evacuate Rachel's tomb as they had forced the evacuation of Joseph's tomb two months ago, an army spokesman charged.
In that incident, Israel withdrew its troops at Joseph's tomb in the center of PA-controlled Nablus after days of heavy fighting there where a soldier died. In a bid to cool tensions, Israel left the site temporarily, under the protection of the PA police.
But it was immediately turned over to a Palestinian mob, which defaced the tomb and Jewish religious school at the site. Within days it was transformed into a mosque.
Rachel and Joseph's tombs are two sites under special dispensation according to signed agreements, and were to remain under full Israeli control in any final peace settlement.
Rachel's tomb is located on the edge of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, and across the valley from another hotspot, Beit Jalla, from which Palestinian gunmen have regularly fired on the nearby Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo over the past two months.
According to reports, Palestinians said the shooting came in retaliation for an incident in the village of Husan on Sunday. Palestinians said Israeli soldiers had stormed the village and shot at the mosque, wounding at least 25 Palestinians.
"We appeal to the whole world to secure protection for our people from attacks by settlers and soldiers, and we hold the Israeli government fully responsible for this ugly crime in Husan," the PA was quoted as saying in a statement.
The Israeli army said that the incident in Husan began when Palestinians hurled firebombs and rocks at Israelis.
No Palestinians were killed on Sunday, although an Israeli soldier was seriously wounded when he was stabbed in the neck. The death toll in more than two months of clashes has risen to nearly 300.
Violence to Continue
A number of nationalistic and Islamic Palestinian factions have called for an escalation in the violence and the PA cabinet declared that the confrontations would not end in the face of "Israeli aggression."
Thirteen factions, including PA Chairman Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, called for an escalation in the intifada (uprising). According to Palestinian newspapers, the escalation is to mark the anniversary of the first intifada, which started in December 1987.
The PA cabinet accused Israel of aggression and of turning its back on the peace process in a statement on Friday.
"Despite the heavy human and material losses and the siege and the return to the policy of collective punishment, our Palestinian people are growing more determined to continue their steadfastness in the face of the Israeli aggression," the statement said.
"The Palestinian Authority has made all efforts to spare our people the wrath of this Israeli aggression, but the Israeli government turned its back on the peace process and resorted to the military solution."
Diplomacy Marches On
Prime Minister Ehud Barak told his cabinet on Sunday that the current violence had nothing to do with the failed Camp David summit in the summer, after which relations between Israel and the PA rapidly declined into what has been described as "war."
"The violence now being undertaken by the Palestinians is not the consequence of our approach but stems from a conscious choice by the other side which wants to appear to have attained independence through bloodshed and confrontation," he said in a statement.
Barak also stressed that Israel has not rejected any U.S. plan for resolving the current crisis, because Washington has made no such proposals.
Barak and Clinton spoke over the weekend by phone for 45 minutes, a call later characterized in press reports as difficult.
National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters that the U.S. had "clearly indicated since Camp David [its willingness] to help the parties in any way" it could, if they would return to negotiations.
"We have seven weeks left in this administration and we are prepared to do everything we can to help the parties reach an agreement if that's what they want," Crowley said.
Israel stated clearly on Sunday that it would welcome the U.S.-led fact-finding committee, due in Israel later this month.
"Israel does not fear the work of the committee and certainly not its conclusions," Foreign Minister Ben-Ami said in a statement.
Israel earlier sought to put off the arrival of the committee, to be headed by former Senator George Mitchell, until violence had subsided.