Bid for peace among new clashes and casualties

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Israel and the Palestinians on are trying to arrange their first high-level direct peace talks in six weeks despite rock-throwing clashes and gun battles which have seen three Palestinians killed by Israeli army fire.

Israel and the Palestinians on are trying to arrange their first high-level direct peace talks in six weeks despite rock-throwing clashes and gun battles which have seen three Palestinians killed by Israeli army fire.

In the West Bank village of Al Khader, a Palestinian policeman died in a firefight between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli soldiers. Gun battles also erupted at the Karni crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip, scene of intense clashes for the past two days.

In all, six Palestinians were killed at Karni and more than 20,000 mourners joined a mass funeral for five of the victims. The crowd repeated slogans shouted over a loudspeaker mounted on the lead truck. "Goodbye, martyrs, we will meet in paradise," they chanted. "We will take revenge against the Israelis, and this will happen soon."

Despite the renewed violence, Shimon Peres, Israel's elder statesman, said he will hold talks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Wednesday or Thursday to try to clear the air after 35 days of fighting that has left 150 people dead, the majority Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Arafat both attended a U.S.-sponsored Mideast summit in Egypt on Oct. 17, but refused to meet face-to-face.

Peres, who as the architect of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking has spent many hours negotiating with Arafat, said he did not have high expectations for his meeting with the Palestinian leader. Nonetheless, "I just think that, even when there is shooting, we need to talk," Peres told Israel army radio.

He said he expected Arafat to give a clear commitment to a truce agreement arranged at the Mideast summit by U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Israel's top peace negotiator, Gilead Sher, will also participate in the talks, expected to be held in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem.

Arafat met Wednesday with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Gaza City, saying he was grateful for the visit "at a time when we are subjected to military attacks." Arafat said Germany has agreed to treat 50 wounded Palestinians, including several who are in serious condition.

The Palestinian leader asked for greater European involvement in peace talks. "We are looking for a German stance, a European stance to push the peace process forward, to protect the peace process," Arafat said in a joint news conference with Schroeder. However, Germany has declined so far, limiting its role to financial aid.

Barak said he briefly spoke with Arafat by phone several days ago, in their first talk since the violence erupted, and warned that the Israeli army could retaliate more harshly for Palestinian shooting attacks. Earlier this week, Israeli helicopters fired rockets at headquarters of Arafat's Fatah movement in four locations.

Still, Barak said negotiations are inevitable. "When the shooting stops and the dust settles and all the grieving families on both sides have mourned, we will still have the exact same issues to contend with," he said.

Inspecting the damage at one of the buildings, Arafat declared that the rocket attacks would not deter Palestinian children with rocks in their hands from defending their homeland.

The Palestinian Cabinet convened late Tuesday and demanded that the United Nations deploy troops to protect Palestinian civilians against Israeli attacks. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke, said the proposal was not constructive because "it is written as an attack on one side."

Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat were to meet separately this week with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, as part of American efforts to end the fighting and renew the peace process.

Erekat said he will present a letter to Clinton with four Palestinian demands, including international protection and the establishment of an international inquiry commission into the violence.

Israel has rejected calls for an international inquiry, fearing bias. Instead, Israel suggested that the United States conduct a study.

Also, Israel claims that its soldiers do not initiate the clashes. Rather, they respond to Palestinian attacks on their positions, the army says.