Middle East Violence Enters Second Month
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Middle East Violence Enters Second Month

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A wave of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that shattered efforts to make peace in the Middle East has entered its second month with a fury that shows no signs of abating.

During the first month, the fighting escalated from Palestinian rock-throwers attacking then retreating from Israeli soldiers, to pitched battles between armed Palestinian militias and the Israelis.

The severity of some of these battles prompted Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s top security aide, Danny Yatom, to announce Wednesday that “it is possible we will decide that military steps taken so far have not been enough.”

The ongoing clashes, however, did not prevent a meeting between Cabinet member Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

The two met in Gaza on Wednesday night, hours after Israel sent tanks and helicopters into battles in the West Bank with Palestinian gunmen.

Barak gave the go-ahead for the meeting after Leah Rabin, widow of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — who was assassinated five years ago this week – – asked the premier to make use of Peres’ proven peacemaking abilities.

At least two Palestinians, including a policeman, were killed in a heavy battle Wednesday at a village near the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

Three Israeli soldiers were wounded, one of them seriously.

Palestinian witnesses said Israeli combat helicopters fired rockets during the clash in the village of El-Khadr, but Israeli officials said the helicopters were used to evacuate the Israeli casualties.

An Israeli tank shelled targets Wednesday in Beit Shahour, also near Bethlehem, in response to Palestinian gunfire there.

The same day, Israel’s army accused Palestinian gunmen of using a Red Crescent ambulance and first aid station to fire at the Jewish settlement of Psagot in the West Bank.

The army, which did not return the fire, called the incidents a “dangerous escalation by the Palestinian Authority.”

Israeli helicopters fired rockets Wednesday at a training center for Palestinian security forces in the West Bank town of Jericho.

The helicopters struck after Palestinian gunmen opened fired at Israeli soldiers.

And in Jerusalem, one person was lightly injured when a pipe bomb exploded near a parked jeep, Israeli police said.

A police spokesman said the device had been placed next to the jeep on a street near the city’s main municipal theater.

Also on Wednesday, Palestinian gunmen opened fire on the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, and Israeli troops returned the fire.

No injuries were reported.

The shooting began as Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert visited the neighborhood to show support for the residents.

The attack on Gilo from the nearby Arab town of Beit Jalla was the first since last Friday.

On Saturday, Israel’s army pulled its tanks away from Gilo. But army officials warned the tanks would return if Palestinians resumed firing on Gilo.

The violence this week claimed the lives of two Israelis from the Jerusalem area and also led to a nearly daily increase in the Palestinian death toll.

The continued unrest prompted the Israel Defense Force to announce Monday that it planned to take the offensive against the Palestinian militia forces to prevent attacks on soldiers and Jewish settlers.

Hours later, Israeli helicopters struck Palestinian positions in the West Bank towns of Ramallah and Nablus, and in Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip.

Army officials said the strikes were part of their plan to attack the armed militias of Arafat’s Fatah faction.

The strikes occurred after a Jewish security guard was killed and another one seriously wounded when they were shot at close range Monday inside a branch of the National Insurance Institute in eastern Jerusalem.

The guard who was killed, Esh-Kodesh Gilmore, was a U.S. citizen whose family had moved to Israel. In a separate incident Monday, Palestinian police handed over the body of an Israeli found in an Arab area on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

Israeli police said Monday the body was bound and had multiple stab wounds.

They said the victim, who was in his 30s, was believed to a resident of Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood. Israeli security officials have warned Israeli Jews to stay away from the Palestinian self-rule areas.

On Tuesday, Palestinians angered by the helicopter strikes fought a daylong battle with Israeli troops at the Karni Crossing, an industrial zone between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Four Palestinians were killed during clashes there between Palestinian gunmen and the Israeli troops, according to local hospital officials.

A CNN correspondent, Ben Wedeman, was shot in the back during the pitched battle. It was not immediately clear who shot him.

Karni emerged this week as the focal point for some of the fiercest battles between the two sides.

On Wednesday, three Palestinians were killed during a second day of clashes there.

The crossing was also the scene of one of the most serious clashes Sunday.

At least one Palestinian was shot dead when Israel used tanks to clear a road blocked by Palestinians protesting the presence of Israeli armor at the crossing.

An IDF commander in Gaza accused the Palestinian police of ignoring his calls to calm the protesters and allowing the situation to deteriorate.

He said Palestinian children were sent forward as cover for gunmen. Sunday’s fighting in Gaza occurred as Arafat proclaimed that the “blessed” intifada, or Palestinian uprising, would continue until a “Palestinian child plants a Palestinian flag” on Jerusalem.

Also on Sunday, two more Palestinians were reported killed near the West Bank town of Nablus, and an Israeli soldier was wounded by Palestinian fire.

Exchanges of gunfire between Palestinians and Israeli troops were reported elsewhere in the territories Sunday.

Near the settlement of Morag, in the Gaza Strip, a bomb was detonated next to a bus carrying Israeli civilians.

No one was hurt.

In addition to dealing with the ongoing clashes in the territories, Israeli security forces are on heightened alert for attempts by Islamic militants to carry out terrorist attacks against Israeli targets in the territories and inside Israel.

Commenting on media reports that two Hamas terrorist cells have already infiltrated Israel, Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said the public must be extremely vigilant.

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