Israeli troops knocked a Palestinian government minister unconscious Tuesday while battling Palestinians protesting the expansion of a Jewish settlement.

"This is the graveyard of the peace process," said Saeb Erekat, minister of local government in the Palestinian self-rule authority, after he was revived. His glasses were smashed and his clothes covered with mud.Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel "must decide whether to have the peace or the settlements," Erekat said. "We cannot accept this."

Erekat had joined a group of villagers trying to block Jewish settlers from uprooting olive saplings planted to protest expansion of the Efrat settlement in the occupied West Bank.

Dozens of soldiers surrounded the demonstrators and beat them with their fists and rifle butts. Erekat was knocked to the ground and dragged away. The face of one of his guards was covered with blood.

"The police were necessary because there was a civilian clash between people, and I believe it's the duty of the police to maintain order," Police Minister Moshe Shahal said in response to the incident.

Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat accused Israeli soldiers of working together with settlers.

"Such a policy will only widen the gap between both peoples," Arafat said in a statement. "It will not serve the peace process, but deals it a severe blow, putting it in real danger."

PLO officials have repeatedly threatened to suspend autonomy negotiations with Israel if the government permits the construction of the 500 apartments on 150 acres of land just south of Bethlehem.

Early Tuesday, soldiers detained at least 50 of the 200 demonstrators and loaded them onto an army truck. Four protesters were hurt when soldiers punched them, and several Palestinian women fainted.

About 30 Israelis from the Peace Now movement had joined the villagers at an overnight campsite to protest the planned expansion. Soldiers carted off protesters who lay on the ground with their hands linked, and punched those who resisted.

"You have the guns and we have God with us," shouted demonstrator Fatimah Salah, 65, as four soldiers grabbed her arms and feet and dragged her away.

Efrat, a community of 850 families land on the outskirts of the Palestinian village of Al-Khader, is heavily populated with Americans and other Westerners. Al-Khader residents say the land was taken from them illegally.