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Fierce Fighting in Gaza Strip

October 4, 2000

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Fierce fighting erupted Wednesday in the Gaza Strip, with Israeli troops firing armor-piercing missiles after an isolated army outpost came under Palestinian gunfire. But an uneasy calm reigned in much of the Palestinian territories amid a U.S.-mediated peace effort.

Hospital officials said two Palestinians were killed, including a 13-year-old boy, and at least seven people hurt in the fighting at Netzarim Junction in Gaza, scene of some of the worst clashes in a weeklong spasm of violence. In all, the fighting has left 62 people dead _ including five who died Wednesday _ and more than 1,800 injured, most of them Palestinians.

Although the two sides were talking again _ with Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Ehud Barak brought together in Paris by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright _ there were ominous signs that protesters’ fury had not yet been spent.

Near the Jewish settlement of Netzarim, onlookers said army helicopters shot five missiles at buildings near the army outpost, and that live bullets were fired into a stone-throwing crowd. Hundreds of terrified Palestinian protesters flung themselves flat on the ground.

``I was very scared,″ said 18-year-old Hanan el-Habiba. ``I couldn’t see because of the dust, or hear because of the big roar of the missiles.″

When one man was wounded by a bullet or shrapnel while lying flat, fellow protesters, trying to keep as low to the ground as they could, dragged and pushed him 300 yards to an ambulance, passing him from one person to the next.

In the West Bank, gun battles broke out near Joseph’s Tomb, a Jewish enclave in the troubled town of Nablus, but Palestinian police for the first time in days moved to keep Palestinians out of the area. Another exchange of fire occurred in the tense West Bank village of Tulkarem, but no casualties were immediately reported.

As Palestinians slain in earlier fighting were buried, some young mourners went directly from funeral processions to the front lines.

In Gaza’s Jabaliya refugee camp, the father of 17-year-old Omar Mohammed Suleyman wept hard as his son’s body, wrapped in a white shroud, was lowered into a sandy grave. Suleyman’s young friends looked on, grim-faced _ and then immediately left for Netzarim, where he had been killed the day before. ``Allahu akbar!″ _ God is great! _ they shouted as they went.

Meanwhile, the radical Islamic group Hamas denounced the Paris peace effort, saying it represented ``careless disregard for the blood of our martyrs.″ In leaflets distributed in the West Bank, the group _ which violently opposes any peace accord _ called for new confrontations on Thursday and Friday throughout the West Bank, Gaza and inside Israel.

Large-scale demonstrations by Arab citizens of Israel in sympathy with their Palestinian brethren appeared to have died down Wednesday, but tensions still simmered. In the Israeli coastal city of Jaffa, adjacent to Tel Aviv, Arab demonstrators blocked a street and attacked journalists, injuring an Italian television reporter.

Tensions were also evident in Jerusalem, where extra police and paramilitary border police were fanning out around the city. Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said the buildup was part of an array of security measures that have gone into effect since the clashes broke out last week.

The violence was triggered by a visit Sept. 28 to Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque compound by right-wing Israeli politician Ariel Sharon. Palestinians considered it a desecration of Islam’s third-holiest shrine; Sharon defiantly cited right of access to the site, which is sacred to Jews as well.

Travel remained dangerous in much of the West Bank, where many Jewish settlements have been cut off from Israel because of army restrictions on civilian movements. Some Israeli motorists have been fired upon, and Palestinians have erected barricades of burning tires and boulders along some principal routes.

``We have some communities that have been cut off now for five days,″ said Yehudit Tayar, a spokeswoman for the Settlers’ Council. ``They are basically being held hostage by the Palestinian police.″

Top Israeli officials renewed accusations that the Palestinian leadership had encouraged the wave of violence. ``The situation now is orchestrated, and is extremely counterproductive for the interests of the Palestinian people,″ Israel’s deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh told reporters in Athens, where he was to attend an armaments exhibition.

Although Israel says it is only taking the necessary measures to protect its soldiers, Palestinians say the Israelis’ use of force, including attack helicopters and anti-tank missiles, is out of proportion to the threat posed by demonstrators.

``This is the first time that I’ve seen the rock-throwers facing tanks,″ said Hussein Sheik, a leader of the Tanzim, a paramilitary force aligned with Arafat’s Fatah faction.

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