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Gunfire erupts in Gaza Strip rioting


JERUSALEM - Israeli soldiers and Palestinian police fought their second gunbattle in five days yesterday as rioting again flared out of control in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Although the exchange in the Gaza Strip lasted only about 15 minutes, it left nine people wounded, including an Israeli soldier who was severely hurt.

At an intersection outside Ramallah, scene of Monday's hours-long gunfight, an Israeli soldier used live weapon fire against a Palestinian who had hurled a Molotov cocktail at soldiers, threatening their lives, the army said.

Altogether, rioting in Gaza and seven West Bank towns injured more than 80 people, including a second Israeli soldier and a border policeman, both of whom were pelted with stones.

More clashes were considered likely today, the second of two "days of rage" planned by Palestinian activists to protest the continued detention of 1,600 Palestinians in Israeli jails.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak said he was considering canceling a trip to New York and Washington set for early next week, citing the crises here and in southern Lebanon, where Israeli troops are withdrawing under fire from Hezbollah guerrillas.

The wave of violence by young Palestinians marks a widely predicted explosion of frustration over a drawn-out peace process that has yielded few benefits and failed to deliver territory Palestinians consider theirs by right.

But it also coincides with intensified peace talks aimed at producing the basis for a permanent peace treaty between the two sides that will tackle such highly charged questions as the future of historically Arab East Jerusalem, the dismantling of Jewish settlements and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Many Palestinians appear to think that just as Israel is being pulled out of Lebanon by the public's weariness with the border war there, only continued pressure in the territories will make Israel give up more land.

Some Israeli commentators have charged that Palestinian National Authority President Yasser Arafat himself was responsible, but Barak stopped short of such an accusation.

"We perceive the events here in the beginning of the week as a failure of the Palestinian Authority to control its security forces and some of the paramilitary organizations of the youngsters," Barak said yesterday.

"We cannot afford being dragged into live fire exchanges as a result of a kind of street violence, and we demanded from the Palestinians to change it and to take all the necessary steps to make it impossible that such events will be repeated."

Barak said the planned handover of three villages outside Jerusalem to full Palestinian control would come only after the Palestinian Authority restored order.

Israel responded to Monday's gunbattle near Ramallah by deploying attack helicopters, which came close to opening fire. Only intense negotiations and a warning of air attacks made the Palestinian police stop shooting at Israelis, army Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz said yesterday.

Strong Israeli pressure worked to limit the disturbances until yesterday, when Palestinian demonstrators marched on the Jewish settlement at Netzarim in the impoverished Gaza Strip.

Accounts from the scene said the live fire broke out after an Israeli jeep approached a Palestinian checkpoint and security forces inside refused to disarm. "We're being occupied," a Palestinian security man was overheard saying into his radio, according to CNN.

One of the soldiers sitting in the jeep was severely wounded.

Each side accused the other of firing first. Arafat's spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdinah, said the demonstrators were peaceful before the Israelis arrived and the Israelis fired live bullets in the absence of "any real danger."

Once-secret peace talks resumed yesterday in Stockholm between Israel's Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and Ahmad Qurei, speaker of the Palestinian parliament.

Abu Rdinah dismissed a report that Palestinians had rejected an offer of 90 percent of the West Bank, saying that the only two Palestinians who know what is being negotiated are Qurei and Arafat.

U.S. officials have warned Israel that "far-reaching concessions" will be needed to secure a deal.

The United States wants an interim deal wrapped up at a summit involving Barak, Arafat and Clinton in late June, in advance of Barak's July deadline for completing Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon. That way, it hopes reverberations from new violence by Palestinian refugee militias inside Lebanon will be minimized.

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