Palestinians bury their dead; one killed in new clashes

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The Independent Online

Led by masked gunmen, tens of thousands of Palestinians today marched behind the flag-draped bodies of four members of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement killed in a firefight with Israeli troops a day earlier.

Led by masked gunmen, tens of thousands of Palestinians today marched behind the flag-draped bodies of four members of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement killed in a firefight with Israeli troops a day earlier.

In new clashes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, several Palestinians were injured by Israeli fire, including one man who was in critical condition with a head wound.

In Nablus, the funeral procession slowly wound its way through the streets. A lead truck carried masked militiamen hoisting their assault rifles. Many mourners carried flags of Arab countries, in an appeal for support from the Arab summit in Cairo. "Oh Arabs, pay attention, the Palestinians are getting killed," the crowd chanted.

Opening the summit Saturday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak blamed Israel for bringing the peace process to a standstill by "terrorizing innocent civilians and killing defenseless children," but said Arabs would not abandon the path of negotiation.

Arafat said that despite "the worst kinds of mass killings, shelling in addition to severe siege... our choice is the choice of permanent, just and comprehensive peace."

However, Amar Hassan, 28, a Fatah supporter in Nablus, said confrontation, not peace talks, will bring Palestinian independence. "We should stop throwing stones," said Hassan. "We should learn how to shoot, how to plant explosives near the roads."

Rock-throwing clashes erupted near the Erez crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel, near the Gaza town of Khan Yunis and in the West Bank village of Zair. Several Palestinians were injured, including one who was in critical condition.

In all, nine Palestinians were killed and 103 injured in clashes with Israeli soldiers on Friday, the deadliest day in two weeks. Three weeks of fighting have left 113 people dead, most of them Palestinians.

The fiercest battle erupted Friday south of Nablus, where Fatah militiamen opened fire on Israeli troops just moments after an Israeli deadline for a U.S.-brokered truce expired. In an intense 10-minute exchange of fire, four Palestinians were killed and 27 wounded.

In response to the violence, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said he would call a open-ended "timeout" after the Arab summit to rethink Israeli policy concerning the peace talks. Until now, a peace agreement with the Palestinians had been Barak's top priority.

"Timeout is not a slogan. This is what is needed," he said. "We cannot go on with the peace process as if nothing has happened."

After the Arab summit, the government may also revise orders to Israeli troops on how to handle the Palestinian riots and complete its assessments "concerning unilateral separation" from the Palestinians, Barak said. In such a scenario, Israel would unilaterally draw a fortified border with the Palestinians without waiting for a peace agreement.

Barak has been courting Israel's hawkish opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, who has said he would not join an emergency coalition - and thus save Barak from early elections - unless Israel walked away from the peace talks. Barak and Sharon met Friday, shortly after the truce collapsed.

Israeli Cabinet minister Matan Vilnai, a former deputy chief of staff in the armed forces, said Saturday a timeout was necessary, but that Israel hoped to return to negotiations.

"At the moment, we lack a partner," Vilnai told Israel radio. "I hope this is temporary. I'm not saying (our partner) won't be Arafat in the future. He is still the Palestinian leader. But at the moment, it seems that Arafat thinks he can get by force what he can't get through negotiations."

Meanwhile, a U.N. body issued its third recent admonition of Israel Friday, with the General Assembly voting to condemn the "excessive use of force" by Israeli troops. The United States, Israel and four other countries voted against the non-binding resolution.

On Oct. 7, with the United States abstaining, the Security Council condemned the excessive use of force against Palestinians. On Thursday, the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Commission voted to set up an inquiry into the violence.