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Tensions rise in West Bank as statehood bid nears

RAMALLAH, West Bank — With a showdown with the United States looming at the United Nations, tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered in the streets Wednesday in support of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' expected call Friday for U.N. membership for a Palestinian state.

At the same time, Palestinian activists reported an uptick in attacks by Jewish settlers on Palestinians, and settlers held their own demonstrations opposing the Palestinian move.

The Palestinian Authority had declared Wednesday a holiday and given children the day off from school to attend marches and speeches throughout Ramallah.

Fadi Minswas, a 37-year-old waiter, brought his entire family.

"We have so few things to celebrate," he said. "At the beginning we were skeptical, but now we are excited for the vote in the U.N., for the whole world to see us declared a state in the U.N.," he said.

A Palestinian Authority spokesman pronounced the government pleased by the turnout.

"The Palestinian masses have come out to support the process . . . despite all the pressure to deter us from applying for membership of a state of Palestine," Nabil Abu Rudeina said.

A small group of demonstrators clashed with Israeli soldiers at the Qalandiya checkpoint, which separates Ramallah and Jerusalem. The youths hurled stones and ran through clouds of tear gas launched to disperse them.

"This is just the beginning. They will see on Friday what will happen if they deny us a state," 16-year-old Muhammed Ahmed said.

The demonstrations came as the United States continued to work to persuade Abbas not to proceed with his speech. President Barack Obama said in his address Wednesday to the General Assembly that only negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians can lead to a Palestinian state.

But the outpouring of support for the U.N. move in Ramallah made it clear that Palestinian officials were unlikely to back down.

Meanwhile, there were reports that Jewish settlers in the West Bank had ratcheted up attacks on Palestinians in recent days.

Palestinian activists said two olive groves that belonged to Palestinians had been burned last week and three Palestinian homes had been attacked.

In the northern West Bank village of Sira, a group of masked teenagers from a nearby settlement attempted to set fire to the Yousef family home Wednesday for the second time this month.

The teenagers could be seen running up the hill to where several jeeps from the Israeli military stood waiting. Several had used their T-shirts to cover their faces, and one waved the orange flag of the pro-settler movement.

The Israeli army used tear gas to disperse a group of Palestinian men who'd arrived at the scene.

Pro-Palestinian activist Tom Andrews, who's from Great Britain, said settlers seemed unnerved by the U.N. bid.

"The settlers seem to feel that the U.N. vote is far more of a threat to them than the Palestinians feel that it is promising for themselves. A lot of attacks at the moment are coming purely from the settlements around Nablus," he said.

Leaders from the Settler Council denounced attacks on Palestinian villages and said the young people thought to be responsible were part of an extremist offshoot.

But there's no doubt that tensions are high. Hundreds of settlers also marched Wednesday in the settlement of Itamar, just a few miles down the road from Sira.

Itamar Mayor Moshe Goldsmith said the march was meant to show solidarity in the face of the U.N. bid.

"These same Palestinians that are announcing statehood are the ones that want to see the end of the settlements," he said. "The land of Israel is a Jewish homeland. And we are here to stay."

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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