A 19-year-old Palestinian woman on her way to classes at Bethlehem University was wounded in the neck today when, according to Israeli Army officials, a jeep-mounted machine gun discharged accidentally.
Students accompanying the injured woman accused the Army patrol of intentionally opening fire and then immediately claiming it was accidental.
Tensions in the normally tranquil campus of the Vatican-supported university were high as demonstrating students raised a Palestinian flag and Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freiji demanded the withdrawal of Israeli Army patrols from Arab towns throughout the West Bank.
The West Bank military governor's office said the solider responsible for the .30-caliber machine gun was under investigation for violating Army regulations against patroling populated areas with a weapon charged with cartridges in the firing chamber.
Capt. Ishai Cohen, of the West Bank commander's office, said, "It really was an accident. We don't even know this girl. The street was quiet. rThe weapon just went off accidentally."
The wounded woman, Taghrid Butmma, was described as in "fair to good" condition at the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem with a wound in the back of her neck. A hospital official said the wound affected nerves that caused a loss of feeling in one of the woman's hands.
A classmate, Rwayda Harghieh, 19, said that she and her brother, Hamid, 18, had just stepped off a bus near the university and were walking toward the campus with Butmma when they noticed soldiers in a jeep behind them making some sort of signals, which, they said, they did not understand.
"Suddenly, we heard bullets, and Taghrid fell into my arms. She said, 'What's happening, what's happening,' and then fell down," Hamid Harghieh said.
He said the jeep ran toward them and soliders were shouting, "Accident! Accident!" Hamid said. His sister, Rwayda, said one solider was "laughing, as if it was a joke."
The soliders were actually Israeli border policemen, who are assigned to security duty in the West Bank but are under the command of the Army.
Cohen said none of the bullets struck Butmma directly, but apparently ricocheted off the street. The woman was hit by either a fragment of a shell or a piece of the pavement, Cohen said. He said an investigation had not determined how the machine gun discharged three bullets, but speculated that the jeep may have hit a pothole.
At a student rally five hours after the shooting, speaker after speaker denounced the incident a "barbaric," and said West Bank Arabs would never accept the explanation offered by the authorities.
"They tried to explain this as a real accident, and tried to apologize. Yet too many accidents that occur seem to be accidents, but are somehting else. We question the motive of such unnecessary aggression against our people," said a chemistry professor at the university.
The university president, Brother Joseph Loewenstrin, who for years has sought to prevent militant nationalism from interfering in campus life, attended the rally. He said, "I try not to talk about the situation [the occupation]. I can only condemn this deplorable incident this morning."
The packed lecture hall was festooned with placards declaring, "Each drop of Palestinian blood represents truly a great injury to the fascist occupation" and "Terrorism of the Zionist occupation will increase our struggle in our land."
At one point, a professor declared, "This is on behalf of the staff and faculty stood and cheered widely in masks ran down the aisle, with a Palestinian flag and affixed it to a blackboard. As they did, the students and faculty stood and cheered widly, in open defiance of a ban on displaying the Palestine Liberation Organization emblem.
For this Christian university which, compared to Bir Zeit University near Ramallah, is regarded as a center of moderation, the scene underscored the growing radicalization of many middle class West Bank Arabs.
Freij, until recently regarded by the Israelis as the most moderate mayor in the West Bank, declared, "I demand all military patrols be withdrawn immediately from all Arab towns in the West Bank."
"There are no jurisdictions and no excuses for these barbaric actions . . . I will not accept any explanations. The perpetrators must be severely punished," he added.
Freij said several shops in the vicinity of the shooting had been closed by security forces immediately afterward. He said he doubted if the military governor will prosecute the solider responsible.