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Israeli army closes West Bank, Gaza


JERUSALEM -- The Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza were closed off indefinitely yesterday after the massacre of Muslim worshipers in the occupied city of Hebron that left scores dead.

"Beginning Sunday at 3 a.m. [8 p.m. yesterday], there will be a closure on all the West Bank," an Israeli army spokesman was quoted as saying in a dispatch from the Reuters news agency.

"During the closure, entry of Arab residents to work in Israel will not be permitted."

The spokesman said the closure on the Gaza Strip, imposed after the mosque massacre on Friday, would remain in force.

Earlier yesterday, three more Arabs died in disturbances, and questions mounted about the actions of Israeli soldiers during and after the shooting.

Clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers spread throughout the occupied West Bank and into usually quiet Arab neighborhoods within Israel yesterday.

Police used tear gas in confrontations with Israeli Arabs demonstrating in Jaffa near Tel Aviv, and in Nazareth in northern Israel. At least 20 were injured.

Israel's President, Ezer Weizman, yesterday called Friday's mass-murder at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron "the most severe thing that has happened to us in the history of Zionism."

The government emphasized yesterday its portrayal of the tragedy as the solitary act of a deranged man, a New York-born Israeli settler named Dr. Baruch Goldstein. But there were more demands for an explanation of the fatalities caused by soldiers in Hebron Friday.

The gunman is said to have killed 39 Muslims praying at the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

But perhaps as many as 15 other Palestinians were killed by soldiers either in the melee at the mosque, or in later clashes in Hebron.

Five more were killed elsewhere in the territories Friday.

There still is no full official version of the events, which are clouded by conflicting eyewitness accounts.

Some Palestinian survivors said they clearly saw soldiers shooting at those trying to flee from the mosque.

"They started shooting as soon as they were facing a flow of people," said Mohammad Rabiya al-Jabbari, 55.

"After the settler started shooting, the soldiers came into the prayer room and started to shoot with him."

Army Chief of Staff Ehud Barak said yesterday that soldiers acted properly in a time of confusion. But his account also left unanswered questions.

"Soldiers did not shoot even one bullet in the cave," he said on Israel Television.

"They had a lot of difficulty getting in against the flow of people. They shot a few shots in the air, at the wall at the entrance.

"I don't think anybody was hurt from that, but the whole matter is being investigated," he said.

Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, alleged from his headquarters in Tunis that the shooting was "a great conspiracy . . . a dirty plan between settlers and some soldiers."

Mr. Arafat summoned Palestinian negotiators from various cities where they had been talking with Israeli counterparts.

Members of the PLO executive committee were to meet today to consider the offer by President Clinton to resume negotiations in Washington.

Israeli government ministers were scheduled to meet today to consider a response to the mounting international condemnation the event and to the calls for tougher controls on right-wing settlers in the Arab territories.

Hebron, a town of about 100,000 Arabs and 6,000 Jewish settlers, remained under tight curfew yesterday.

Authorities said the Jewish settlers in Hebron and adjacent Kiryat Arba were restricted for the first time. But reports from Hebron said that Jewish residents were allowed to go in and out of Kiryat Arba, and armed settlers were on the streets in Hebron.

Goldstein, the settler who opened fire on Muslim worshipers as they prayed in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, was a resident of Kiryat Arba.

Among the questions that persisted yesterday was why he was allowed to enter the mosque as dawn prayers were beginning at 5:30, carrying a fully loaded weapon.

General Barak conceded that "two or three of the border guard people came 20 minutes late" to their post. "It was too late."

The shooting by the settler resulted in curfews imposed on Palestinians in most populated areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip yesterday.

Demonstrators defying the curfews clashed with soldiers, who responded to stone-throwers with bullets.

Palestinians were killed during demonstrations in a village just north of Jerusalem, in Gaza, and in Tulkarm, northwest of Nablus.

In Jaffa, Israeli Arabs shouted, "Death to the Jews," broke car windows and set shops on fire, according to reports from the scene.

In Nazareth, police used tear gas to disperse stone-throwers.

Israel rejected Palestinian demands that the settlers be disarmed and that an international force be sent to protect Palestinians before peace talks can be resumed.

Israel Radio said a release of about 1,000 Palestinian prisoners expected in two weeks would be moved up, to take place in the next few days. Israel holds about 10,000 Palestinians in its jails.

Israel poured soldiers into the territories to strictly enforce curfews and closed off portions of East Jerusalem and the Old City to Palestinians.

Arabs under 40 were forbidden from entering the al-Aqsa mosque, their holiest shrine in Jerusalem and one of he most revered shrines in all of Islam.

The restriction was imposed even though Muslims are in the midst of Ramadan, their holy month of truce and fasting.

There was no restriction on Jews traveling to the Western Wall, which is directly beneath the mosque.

Yesterday, Arab municipal workers swept up the thousands of egg-sized rocks that littered the plaza in front of the Western Wall.

Arabs had thrown the stones at Jews Friday, resulting in a temporary closure of the Jewish site to worshipers.

The U.N. Security Council discussed a resolution Saturday night condemning the massacre but adjourned without agreement on the language and did not set a date for a new meeting.

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