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Palestinians, Some Israelis Work to Ease Tensions in West Bank

  • Luis Ramirez

Last month, residents of Beit Fajjar rioted after Jewish extremists from a nearby settlement defaced their mosque and set it on fire.

For weeks, the United States was working with Israel to finalize a deal that would temporarily freeze Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank to get peace talks going again. On Tuesday, the US administration announced it was giving up those efforts. Meanwhile, in the West Bank, the Palestinian leadership has been working to prevent an outbreak of violence among a population increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress toward a peace deal. And it's trying to show it's ready for statehood and can maintain order.

Authorities in one Palestinian town were able to contain an uprising following an attack by Jewish settlers last month.

This is what officials in Beit Fajjar, a West Bank town, have been trying to avoid: an Intifada or Palestinian revolt like the one that took place in 2000.

Last month, residents of Beit Fajjar rioted after Jewish extremists from a nearby settlement defaced their mosque and set it on fire.

So far, the violence has not spread, and Palestinians and Israelis can take credit.

The mosque has been repaired thanks to the Palestinian Authority, which coordinated the job.

A fresh coat of paint has all but erased the epithets that residents say Jewish extremists scrawled on the walls.

Ihmidan Taqatka heads the local committee of President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction. "The situation was so bad when the people heard the news about the mosque. There was extreme anger inside of people so we decided to work fast to contain the anger. We were afraid the situation would deteriorate," he said.

Some Israelis also feared an escalation and they rushed to do damage control.

Shlomo Brin, a rabbi in the nearby Gush Etzion settlement, was among those who came to deliver new Qurans as a token of co-existence. "This Land of Israel is the national home of the Jews. Where will the borders pass? We will discuss it and we will find a compromise. But in the meantime, this is our land and in this conflict we have to avoid committing crimes that go against morality," he said.

With Israel expanding West Bank settlements while peace talks are on hold, Palestinians are despairing. For them, the promise of ending the occupation is elusive and tensions are high.

The Palestinian Authority is eager to show it's ready for statehood and violence would undermine that.

In Beit Fajjar, it's not clear how long the peace will hold.

At a stone cutting factory in the town, Said Taqatka says the settlers' attack angered him and he was tempted to take up arms.

He says the rabbis' gesture did not change his view of Israeli settlers. "The story is not that we feel happy (they came). The story is that they are cheating us," he said.

Said, like many here in the West Bank, is waiting to see if Israel and the United States can hammer out a deal to freeze settlement construction so talks can continue.

The challenge for the Palestinian leadership is to contain the anger and frustration, in the hopes that negotiations will lead to freedom from the Israeli occupation and a Palestinian state.

The last Palestinian rebellion resulted in the deaths of thousands of Palestinians and Israelis, and an Israeli clampdown that included the building of this security barrier that today restricts the movement of Palestinians on the West Bank.

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Palestinians, Some Israelis Work to Ease