Israel tightens blockade on Palestinian towns after day of heavy fighting

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The Independent Online

Israel tightened its blockade of Palestinian towns after fighting left 10 people dead on one of the worst days of violence since clashes began over two months ago.

Israel tightened its blockade of Palestinian towns after fighting left 10 people dead on one of the worst days of violence since clashes began over two months ago.

At least seven funerals were expected to take place Saturday, the second of two "days of rage" called by the Palestinian leadership to mark the 13th anniversary of their first uprising.

Marwan Barghouti, head of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement in the West Bank, pledged that the fighting would intensify.

Five Palestinians killed in Friday's deadliest incident, in the West Bank town of Jenin, were among those to be buried. The four Palestinian policemen and a civilian died when Israeli tank shells razed a Palestinian police guard post.

Two other Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli security forces and three Israelis were killed in ambushes by Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank.

The Israeli army responded to the deadly shootings by imposing a closure on areas under the full control of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, thereby further restricting Palestinian travel. A general closure imposed since the fighting broke out has banned Palestinians from entering Israel.

The Palestinian Cabinet met late Friday in Gaza and termed Israel's policy one of "collective punishment" that would only exacerbate tensions.

"The Israeli government is launching an unjust war of aggression against the Palestinian people aimed at humiliating the Palestinian nation," a Cabinet statement said.

The renewal of unrest comes just three days before a U.S.-led inquiry commission into the violence was scheduled to arrive in the region. It also dimmed hopes for a renewal of peace talks aimed at releasing the sides from the quagmire.

Speaking to Israeli peace activists, Prime Minister Ehud Barak said the swelling unrest did not bode well for resuming peace talks - although a peace deal was still his ultimate goal.

Palestinian gunmen opened fire on a van carrying Israelis to the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba near Hebron. A 39-year-old school teacher and mother of six, as well as the driver, were killed. Another teacher was wounded.

After Muslim noon prayers, hundreds of Palestinians poured from mosques and marched toward Israeli checkpoints, throwing stones at Israeli troops who responded with stun grenades, tear gas and rubber-coated steel pellets.

In biblical Bethlehem, a 16-year-old Palestinian was killed by a shot to the head in clashes with Israeli troops outside Rachel's Tomb, revered by Jews as the burial site of the biblical patriarch.

In Jerusalem, outside the al Aqsa Mosque compound, dozens of rock-throwers fought with riot police along the Via Dolorosa, or Way of Sorrows, which tradition says Jesus traveled on the way to his crucifixion.

One protester was killed by Israeli fire and several were wounded. Several policemen were also hurt.

Israeli-Palestinian fighting broke out at the Al Aqsa compound, the third holiest site of Islam, on Sept. 28, the day Israeli hard-line leader Ariel Sharon visited the area to demonstrate Israeli control there. Jews revere it as the site of their former biblical Temples, the holiest shrines of Judaism.

Since then, 309 people, the vast majority Palestinians, have been killed.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah, gunmen fired from abandoned high-rise buildings, drawing intense Israeli return fire.

In Jenin, five Palestinians were killed when an Israeli tank fired three shells at a Palestinian police guard position, said Mohammed Hijazi, 20, a policeman who stood 20 feet away when the shells hit.

Hijazi said the tank fired without provocation. The army said the tank fired shells after soldiers spotted four suspicious figures in the distance.

After nightfall, Palestinian gunmen fired on an Israeli bus near Jericho, killing an Israeli passenger and wounding a second.