GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Palestinians desperate for work rioted yesterday, drawing Israeli soldiers and the new Palestinian police into a gunbattle for the first time.
At least two Palestinian civilians were killed. Palestinian police were among at least 70 wounded. One Israeli soldier was seriously injured; several others were hurt by stones.
Both sides blamed the other for the bloodshed.
"The Palestinian police lost control," said Israel's defense adviser, Oded Ben-Ami. "The Palestinian police are the element responsible," added the Israeli chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak.
"It is a real tragedy that Israel uses live ammunition in the face of tens of thousands of workers crossing the checkpoint looking to earn a decent livelihood," said Ibrahim Abu Daqqah, an adviser to Palestinian chief Yasser Arafat. "It's a criminal act."
But yesterday, Mr. Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin were mostly silent on the events, an apparent effort not to further disrupt the delicate peace agreement that resulted in autonomy in the Gaza Strip and Jericho in May. Through an aide, Mr. Arafat appealed for international observers in the Gaza Strip.
The disturbances at the Erez Checkpoint, the main point of exit and entry for Palestinians who work in Israel, ebbed and flowed for hours. Angry workers set on fire a gasoline station and dozens of Israeli buses at a bus station there. Black smoke plumes could be seen for miles.
The riot began in the morning labor pool, a sordid daily scene of desperation. About 15,000 workers arrive at the checkpoint as early as 3 a.m., where they wait in lines for hours to be allowed through the gate and then into a crowded car pool. Many then ride another hour for the chance to put in a day's hard labor in Israeli fields or factories or construction sites for 50 shekels -- about $17.
Although Israel needs the cheap labor, it periodically restricts the number of workers allowed in and often revokes permits on "security grounds" that Palestinians see as arbitrary. There is little industry and few jobs in the Gaza Strip, so workers rely on jobs in Israel.
After the disturbance yesterday, Israel sealed the Gaza Strip so no workers could leave. Such closures in the past have lasted from a few days to a month or more.
Accounts vary on how the incident began, but most agree that workers without permits crowded at the checkpoint and tried to get through about 4 a.m. Israelis say they fired into the air to drive the masses back after they were pelted with stones; Palestinians say the Israeli soldiers opened fire on the crowd.
"They were shooting like crazy, everywhere," said Mohammed Abu-Rahman, 31, who works in a Tel Aviv rubber parts factory. He was wounded in the back. "People were shot in the back, in the legs. The soldiers didn't care."
Other workers arrived unaware of the troubles. Bassam Abu-Jarad, 15, came with his father at 4:45 a.m. and started running across a field when he realized there was shooting.
"The Israeli jeep called me to stop, but I was too scared to stop. So they shot me twice," said the young man, lying in a Gaza hospital with bullet wounds in the leg and arm.
Israeli accounts say that in the melee, Palestinian police began shooting in the air and then began shooting at the Israeli checkpoints. The two forces control separate guard posts at the Erez checkpoints, separated by a few hundred yards.
The Palestinians say they fired at the Israelis only after Israeli soldiers charged toward their post, firing at them.
"It was like a battle. There was shooting from both sides," said a Palestinian journalist on the scene.
"We were trying to tell the workers to settle down and go home," said one Palestinian policeman, Mohammed Kamal al-Masri, 22. "Then three Israeli jeeps came and fired at us. At first we were shooting in the air, but when we saw the Israelis shooting to kill, we fired back."
Israeli army sources say they believe a Palestinian officer fired a shot that seriously injured an Israeli Border Patrol soldier. Israeli authorities offered as proof television clips showing Palestinian police and soldiers firing toward Israeli positions.
It was the first time that Israeli and Palestinian soldiers had exchanged fire since Israeli troops turned over large sections of the Gaza Strip and Jericho in May to Palestinian forces gathered from army units around the Middle East.
Israeli officials had said the transition, in which nervous former enemies faced each other with guns, was going smoothly.
Palestinians yesterday contended that Jewish settlers who live in a protected settlement near the Erez checkpoint also joined in the fray and began firing at Palestinians.
"A settler shot me," said 15-year-old Mohammed Abu-Orda, who arrived around 8 a.m. expecting to sell candy to the waiting workers. "He was in civilian dress. He shot me twice, once in the leg and once in the back."
"How do you think this makes me feel as a father," lamented Yusef Abu-Orda, next to the son's bed in the al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza. "We have no work, no jobs, no money. My son has to go there to make a little money for the family."
There was no response from Israeli or settler officials about the allegation that settlers had participated.
Israeli authorities gave no indication how long the closure of the Gaza Strip will last.
"The right to work is a privilege and will be given in general only if the Palestinians keep the rules and prevent this kind of unrest," said General Barak.
Mordechai Gur, the Israeli deputy defense minister, blamed the Palestinian police for checking the workers too slowly , a task which Israel has insisted they perform before the workers reach Israeli soldiers for another check.
"I agree that the people of the Gaza Strip have a right to work and that we have to allow them to support their families," he said in an interview on Israel Radio. "Unfortunately, the crossing for workers in the morning has become unbearable because the checks through the Palestinian police are apparently very long. We are aware of the clumsiness of the checking process on the Palestinian side. We warned them and talked about it."