One dead in fresh Middle East fighting

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The Independent Online

One Palestinian protester has been killed amid fresh clashes in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

One Palestinian protester has been killed amid fresh clashes in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

In one of the worst flashpoints in an 8-day-old spasm of violence, a crossroads in the Gaza Strip, saw new fighting that left at least one Palestinian dead and nine injured.

But a fragile US-brokered truce finally appeared to be taking hold on the ground this evening, as Israel rolled back tanks from sensitive positions near several West Bank cities.

Emotional funerals for victims of clashes with Israeli troops set off some new skirmishes, in what has become a familiar and bloody cycle of grief and vengeance.

And both sides were braced for the possibility of large-scale trouble tomorrow, with officials fearing that noon prayers - the most important of the Muslim week - could become a new call to battle.

The ferocious street riots that swept the Palestinian lands which started a week ago have claimed at least 67 lives and injured nearly 1,900 people, nearly all of them Palestinian.

Tomorrow's prayers at Al Aqsa Mosque, the Jerusalem shrine at the center of the current outbreak of violence, are expected to be particularly fraught.

Weekly sermons at Al Aqsa often consist of fiery calls from the imam, or Muslim cleric, to defend to the death Arab control of the compound, Islam's third-holiest site.

It was a visit to Al Aqsa by rightist Israeli politician Ariel Sharon that set off this convulsive bout of clashes, the most intense and sustained fighting since the days of the 1987-93 intefadeh, or Palestinian uprising against Israeli military occupation.

The compound - known to Jews as the Temple Mount - is also Judaism's most sacred site, and Sharon says he was defending Jewish rights by visiting it.

In advance of Friday prayers, Israeli police were heavily deployed in Jerusalem neighborhoods, and the nearest hospital to Al Aqsa said its staff was on alert for potentially heavy casualties.

Israeli media said authorities were considering banning worshippers under the age of 35, who are considered to better fit the profile of potential rioters.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, returning to Israel after turbulent US-brokered talks in Paris, expressed determination to halt the fighting and somehow get the battered peace process back on track.

But on both sides, mistrust and bitterness were readily apparent, despite an agreement that field commanders would seek to exercise restraint.

"Yesterday in Paris, we continued to turn every stone on the way to peace, and try to stop the violence," Barak said.

"I am not convinced that at this moment we have a partner for peace, but it is our obligation ... to pursue this to the end."

Later, at a memorial service for paratroopers slain in past wars, the former general observed that "the time has not yet come to beat our swords into ploughshares."

But Barak pledged to "seek any way to bring true security and peace to this tortured and suffering land."

Arafat, returning to Gaza, was asked whether the door remained open to future peace negotiations.

"We hope so," he replied. "But first of all, we have to stop the massacres against our people .... against our students and youth and children and women."

Despite consistently blaming one another for the carnage, the two sides were beginning to work together to contain it.

Israel rolled battle tanks away from the West Bank towns of Ramallah, Bethlehem and Nablus in an effort to calm tensions. Although the army had not used the tanks to fire on rioters, their deployment on the very edge of major Palestinian population centers had deeply alarmed the Palestinians.

Senior Israeli and Palestinian commanders also met earlier today in Gaza and in Nablus, where firefights had raged earlier in the week around the small Jewish enclave of Joseph's tomb.

The latest casualties - one Palestinian killed and nine wounded, one seriously - occurred this afternoon at Netzarim Junction in Gaza, which has been the scene of repeated battles as Palestinian mobs besieged a lone Israeli outpost that guards the access road to a Jewish settlement.

Israel has broken out some of its heaviest weaponry at Netzarim, using armor-piercing missiles and helicopter gunships to scatter rioters and target nearby buildings that have sheltered Palestinian gunmen.

So today's clash, though involving exchanges of live fire, represented something of a de-escalation.

Funerals for Palestinian victims of the violence have been drawing volatile crowds that number in the thousands.

In the West Bank town of Hebron, about 150 mourners swarmed into the center of town after a burial procession to throw rocks at Israeli troops.

The soldiers shot back rubber bullets, injuring three Palestinians. In Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip, angry funeral-goers fired guns into the air and waved Palestinian and Hamas flags as they buried a 12-year-old boy killed a day earlier at Netzarim.