HEBRON, West Bank — The Jewish enclave in Hebron was engulfed for three hours Saturday by rioting and fist fights between Jews and Arabs, an eruption that could reverberate on the peace summit in Camp David. Five Palestinians were hospitalized.
Palestinians said the Jewish settlers, known to be the most adamant opponents of Prime Minister Ehud Barak's peacemaking efforts, started throwing stones at Palestinians in the afternoon, accusing them of disturbing their Sabbath rest.
Settlers said the riots started when a Palestinian sexually assaulted a Jewish teen-age girl. Palestinian officials strongly denied that, saying it was a pretext for violence by settlers hoping to scuttle any peace accord.
Jewish settlers have attacked local Palestinians in the past for disturbing the Sabbath, but the rioting has rarely achieved such an intensity.
Fist fights drew hundreds of Jews and Palestinians to some of the most sensitive areas in the city, including near the Cave of the Patriarchs, the scenes of bloody violence in the past. Israeli army troops, who are in charge of security in the enclave, grappled both with the settlers and the Palestinians.
Settlers damaged about dozen Palestinian vehicles. The sides threw stones and bottles at each other.
In one incident, five to six Jewish settler men, dressed in their Sabbath best white shirts and blue slacks, surrounded a Palestinian man and started punching and kicking him.
Five Palestinians, including cameramen for Reuters television and TF1, a French network, were hospitalized. Another six, including a cameraman for ABC TV, were treated on the spot. Troops arrested five Palestinians and two settlers. One Palestinian was arrested after shouting "We will die for our land!"
Settlers advanced on Palestinian areas, prompting Israeli soldiers to shout, "Get out of here!"
Order was eventually restored when the troops formed a human shield between the settlers and the Palestinians.
Hebron has been the repeated scene of Jewish-Arab clashes. The 400 settlers there say the city was willed to the Jews by the biblical patriarch, Abraham, and are among the hardest-line in the West Bank.
Among Palestinians, the town is a stronghold of the militant Islamic Hamas movement, which opposes the peace process. There are 120,000 Palestinians living there, about 30,000 in the enclave still controlled by the Israelis.
Israeli government attempts to improve living conditions among the Arabs in the Jewish enclave -- a stipulation of interim pace accords -- have been stymied by settler violence.
Barak is conferring with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at a U.S.-sponsored summit in Camp David, near Washington. Barak has not said whether he would give up Hebron, but he says he is willing to cede settlements in highly populated Palestinian areas.
The Palestinians officially want the settlers evacuated, although some Palestinian leaders have suggested that some Jews could apply for residency.
"We cannot live with them, it's either us or them," said Khalil Kawasme, who spent much of the afternoon exchanging blows with Jewish settlers. "Here's a message for the people in Camp David: get the settlers out."