RAMALLAH, West Bank - The West Bank and Gaza Strip erupted in their worst violence in two years yesterday as protests demanding the release of prisoners from Israeli jails quickly spiraled into riots and then gun battles between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians that left at least two people dead.
An Israeli commander said Palestinian police were the first to use live ammunition after Israeli soldiers spent hours firing rubber-coated metal pellets and tear gas into crowds of rock-throwing, slingshot-wielding and tire-burning youths.
The gun battles overshadowed a major concession to the Palestinians by Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Yesterday, after months of delays, Barak risked the breakup of his coalition to gain its accord on turning over three Arab villages near Jerusalem - Abu Dis, Izzarieh and Sawahrah a-Sharkieh - to full Palestinian control.
What impact the violence will have on the slow-moving peace process is unclear, although Israelis and Palestinians are finally seen by Americans to be getting down to serious negotiations. U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross re-enters the talks this week, and it was revealed that unannounced negotiations are being held in Stockholm, Sweden.
Cut out of the secret talks, lead Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo said that he wants to resign in protest.
After several days of angry riots in the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli security forces had braced themselves for a particularly tense day yesterday, when demonstrations were planned to coincide with the 52nd anniversary of what Arabs call "al Naqba" - "the catastrophe" - referring to the end of the British mandate in Palestine and the birth of Israel as a Jewish state.
Frustration has mounted throughout the Palestinian territories in recent months over the sluggish pace of negotiations, delayed Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory, expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and high unemployment.
By late afternoon, the Palestinian village of El-Bireh on the outskirts of Ramallah had become a war zone, with sounds of automatic weapons fire emanating from multistory buildings on a hilltop and Israeli soldiers firing from a hotel and an empty building a quarter-mile away.
Street battles also broke out in the towns of Bethlehem, Nablus, Tulkarm and Jenin, and near the Jewish settlement of Natzarim in the Gaza Strip.
Barak said he had been told by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat that eight to 10 Palestinians had been killed, and said he knew of at least four dead. However, the director of Palestinian hospitals, Musa Abu Hameid, confirmed only two deaths, along with more than 400 injuries, 20 of them critical.
It was unclear whether Hameid's figure included a death reported in Nablus.
At least 14 Israeli soldiers were injured.
At 10 a.m. yesterday, sirens sounded and traffic and pedestrians came to a partial halt, in a Palestinian echo of Israelis' remembrance of the Holocaust.
In downtown Ramallah, Palestinian youths joined wives, mothers and relatives of the 1,600 Palestinians held in Israeli jails in a rally demanding their release. As mothers and sisters held aloft pictures of imprisoned loved ones, a speaker called on the crowd to "make the street erupt in anger."
Many of the prisoners' family members were going without food in sympathy with a hunger strike by prisoners."My heart is aching inside," said Farha al-Barguti, the 70-year- old mother of a longtime prisoner who said she hadn't seen her son in 10 months. Leaning on a cane, she snapped, "Don't blame me if I find a Jewish settler and I eat him with my teeth and my hands."
Youths moved from the rally site outside Ramallah, between the villages of El-Bireh and Beit--Il, that marks the separation between areas under Palestinian and Israeli control, set fire to tires, and proceeded to engage Israeli soldiers with rocks and slingshots. Israelis responded with rubber bullets, wounding a number of Palestinians.
When one of their number was wounded, Palestinian youths would raise their arms, shout and whistle to beckon one of a number of ambulances close by.
Palestinian police appeared to do nothing to restrain the crowd early on, reflecting the Palestinian Authority's political difficulty in preventing protests over an issue as emotional as the prisoners.
Deepening the authority's embarrassment were leaks to the Israeli news media, broadcast Sunday night, that Palestinian security services had arrested the head of the military wing of Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement that has killed many Israelis in suicide bombings.
By late afternoon, a few armed Palestinians wearing the green uniform of the security services could be seen crouched behind a wall, apparently poised to respond to Israeli fire. On a hillside beyond, Palestinian youths huddled for safety behind an apartment building as Israeli gunfire sought out the Palestinian shooters.
It wasn't until early evening that truckloads of armed Palestinian security men arrived in Ramallah in force to disperse the crowds, but by then the rioting was subsiding.
During the day, Barak was on the phone with Arafat, demanding that he quell the disturbances. But Israeli authorities vowed to beef up their forces in expectation of more clashes today.
The handover of Abu Dis, where Palestinians are building what is expected to be a parliament building, had drawn fierce opposition from right-wingers who took it as a sign that Israel's hold on Jerusalem would collapse
Barak won approval from a divided Cabinet for the handover, and later from parliament, but announced he would delay the transfer until an inquiry determines the cause of yesterday's fighting.
Despite the leak exposing the existence of the secret talks in Sweden, officials were keeping mum about them, let alone saying what progress had been made.