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Deaths cloud Rabin visit

As Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister, left Israel yesterday for his first visit to the United States under its new leader, the news broke that an Israeli soldier, Yehoshua Friedberg, who disappeared while hitch-hiking in central Israel four days ago, was found shot dead near Jerusalem.

Israeli police said Palestinian militants were almost certainly responsible for the kidnapping, and murder of Freidberg, inside Israel proper. Although nobody claimed responsibility for the death, the Israeli police chief, Ya-Acov Turner, said the killing, along with other recent attacks on Israelis, showed Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, is exerting its influence inside Israel.

Another Israeli death also occurred yesterday: an Israeli settler, Simcha Lavie, was found stabbed to death near a refugee camp in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip.

Coming on top of the escalation of violence inside Israel and in the occupied territories, both deaths provide a bleak backdrop to Mr Rabin's visit to Washington.

In talks with the President Bill Clinton, Mr Rabin will repeat his determination not to retreat further over the deportation of 400 Islamic militants last December. The decision was taken following the death of Nissim Toledano, an Israeli border guard, kidnapped on his way to work, then killed.

Mr Rabin justified the expulsions - which have blocked further peace talks - by saying they would end violence through 'cutting off the head of Hamas'. Instead, the evidence is that the attacks are increasing, and Israeli- Palestinian clashes are leading to more deaths on both sides.

Before yesterday, the toll since the deportations stood at eight Israelis killed by Palestinians and 55 Palestinians killed by Israelis. With deportation clearly no longer a policy option for Mr Rabin, the reaction to Friedberg's death yesterday was markedly softer than the reaction to Toledano's in December.

The government yesterday made only low-key statements, clearly not wishing to divert attention from the US summit by focusing on the evident security breakdown.

Friedberg's family even complained that for the first three days of the soldier's disappearance the Israeli army refused to investigate.

Friedberg, who came to Israel two years ago from Montreal, set off on Sunday morning to hitch- hike towards Tel Aviv. His identity card and prayer book were found near the War of Indpendence memorial on the road beteen Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Yesterday, his body was found in bushes near by.