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Violence erupts in Mideast


JERUSALEM -- As Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization raced a deadline for new agreements, the West Bank and Gaza Strip were jolted yesterday by their most severe violence in recent months.

In the northern West Bank city of Nablus, two young Palestinians were shot to death and about 35 other people were wounded in battles between Israeli soldiers and rock-throwing protesters demanding the mass release of Palestinians from Israeli prisons.

The clashes recalled scenes from the Palestinian uprising, the intifada, which raged in the late 1980s and early 1990s but subsided during the past few years of peace talks between Israel and the PLO. Over the past few days, similar battles have taken place elsewhere in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem as Palestinians have put the release of several thousand prisoners at the top of their political agenda.

Hours before the West Bank clash, a young Palestinian on a donkey cart loaded with explosives blew himself up alongside Israeli army jeeps in the Gaza Strip, near the Jewish settlement of Neve Dekalim. Three soldiers were lightly wounded. Relatives of the dead Gazan, Mawya Roka, said he belonged to the militant Islamic movement Hamas.

Israeli forces remaining in Gaza, at its borders and around Jewish settlements, have been on alert against suicide bombings since the shooting death last week of a leader of Islamic Jihad. Despite Israeli denials of responsibility, Islamic militants have blamed Israel for the assassination and threatened reprisals.

The violence is a sign of growing tensions as Israel and the PLO near a July 1 target date for expanding the year-old Palestinian self-rule beyond Gaza and the West Bank district of Jericho to encompass the entire West Bank.

With time growing short, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres of Israel and Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, met in Gaza for three hours yesterday, reporting later that they had made progress but apparently not nearly enough to settle their differences over security issues.

Mr. Peres offered the more upbeat assessment. "I think we are narrowing the gaps very much, and I do hope that if everything will go as it should, we may even reach the target," he said, declining to give details.

Mr. Arafat called the meeting helpful, saying that "we hope we will continue in this attitude." But a spokesman reported no breakthroughs, and said the main achievement was an agreement to keep talking.

Officials on both sides held forth the prospect of a prisoner release before July 1. But divisions remain over a central issue: the scope of Israeli troop movements in the West Bank as a prelude to Palestinian elections, which the two sides say may be held in October or November.

Of the 5,500 Palestinians in Israeli jails, the PLO contends that about 1,700 should qualify for release under peace agreements reached thus far. Israel has released about 4,000 prisoners since self-rule was negotiated for Gaza and Jericho.

The "declaration of principles" signed by Israel and the PLO in 1993 requires that Israeli forces be "redeployed outside populated areas" by the eve of elections. But the two parties, already a year behind schedule in putting this into effect, have been unable to agree on what exactly it means.

Complicating their talks is Israel's insistence that its 120 or so settlements in the West Bank stay where they are until the territories' final status is negotiated. It is a security headache of huge proportions. Jewish settlements and Arab towns are cheek by jowl in many places, making it difficult for the Israeli army to withdraw entirely and at the same time guarantee that Israelis who remain will be safe.

Officials on both sides say that Israel is prepared, as a run-up to elections, to move its forces out of the northern West Bank towns of Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarm and Qalqilya. But it wants to wait until after the balloting to discuss "further redeployment" in towns around Jerusalem, specifically Ramallah and Bethlehem.

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