Borders re-open but Mid East fighting goes on

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The Independent Online

Palestinian militiamen have fired at Israeli troops and rock-throwing has erupted at friction points in the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinian militiamen have fired at Israeli troops and rock-throwing has erupted at friction points in the West Bank and Gaza.

It came despite Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's call to street activists to observe a US-brokered cease-fire with Israel.

Israel had earlier taken steps to ease restrictions on Palestinians, including opening border crossings to Egypt and Jordan. Palestinians were also allowed to reopen their airport in the Gaza Strip.

However, a general closure that prevents Palestinians from entering Israel remained in effect.

Israeli radio reports also said the army has arrested eight Palestinians involved in the mob killing of two Israeli reserve soldiers last week in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Ephraim Sneh, the deputy defense minister, had no immediate comment. The radio said that among those tracked down by Israeli agents was a Palestinian man who had emerged from the scene of the killing with his bloodied hands triumphantly raised in the air, to signal to the frenzied crowd that the deed had been done.

The photograph of the man appeared on front pages across the world.

Despite the persistent tensions, high-level Israeli and Palestinian security officials were meeting to find ways to carry out the promises made to US President Bill Clinton at the Mideast summit in Egypt.

Over the next two days, Israel is to withdraw troops and tanks from friction areas and lift a military siege of Palestinian cities, while the Palestinians are to cease shooting attacks on Israeli positions.

Israel's deputy defense minister, Sneh, said the goal was total calm, but added that the truce would not be completely undermined due to sporadic unrest.

"What we look at first is the volume of opening fire against us," he said.

"We are experienced enough to differentiate between sporadic events and a wave of violence directed by the Palestinian leadership."

Arafat's Palestinian Authority reaffirmed its commitment to the cease-fire. In an announcement, it said it has "issued strict orders to all Palestinians involved to follow through on the implementation of what has been agreed on" at the Mideast summit in the resort of Sharm el-Sheik.

The appeal appeared aimed especially at Arafat's Fatah faction, whose armed militias have taken in a lead in shooting attacks on Israeli positions.

In the West Bank town of Nablus, a Fatah leader, Ali Farraj, told a crowd of 4,000 cheering supporters that his faction would press on with the three-week uprising in which 102 people have been killed, most of them Palestinians.

"The uprising must continue. The clashes must continue," said Farraj, speaking during the funeral of a Fatah activist.

After the burial, dozens of mourners marched to an Israeli checkpoint and threw stones, later to be joined by several gunmen who shot at Israeli soldiers, drawing Israeli return fire. Near the town of Jenin, shots were fired at an Israeli jeep, but there were no injuries.

Fatah leaders suggested privately that shootings would cease immediately if the order came from Arafat.

The Fatah leader in the West Bank, Marwan Barghouti, softened his words Wednesday, saying "it's not easy to control the feelings of the people." Yesterday, Barghouti had said the uprising would continue, regardless of the truce.

Still, there were rock-throwing clashes across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and more than two dozen Palestinians were injured by Israeli live fire and rubber bullets.

An Israeli soldier was hurt by a firebomb in a clash near the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom in the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli army said it has pulled back some tanks from the outskirts of Nablus in a symbolic gesture and would withdraw more heavy equipment from other friction points once it appeared the violence had ebbed.

The Sharm el-Sheik summit, meanwhile, hampered Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's efforts to bring hawkish opposition leader Ariel Sharon into his government.

At the summit, Clinton had told both leaders he would assess within two weeks whether the situation has calmed down enough to allow a resumption of peace talks.

Sharon has sharply attacked Barak in the past for making sweeping concessions to Arafat at the Mideast summit at Camp David in July.

Sharon said today that he would not join the government unless Barak called off the negotiations.

The Israeli parliament returns from its summer recess next week, and at this stage Barak does not command a majority, making him vulnerable by the opposition's push for early elections.