Two dead as Barak bids to form coalition

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Two Palestinian teenagers have been shot dead in the latest round of Middle East violence.

Two Palestinian teenagers have been shot dead in the latest round of Middle East violence.

The dead, aged 15 and 17, were shot in the head during clashes with Israeli troops in the West Bank town of Nablus today.

And a convoy of Jewish settlers escaped unhurt this evening after a bomb exploded in their path as they travelled along a road in the Gaza Strip.

They were leaving the Netzarim settlement, along with Israeli troops, when the bomb went off.

The incidents came as Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak sought to form a government coalition with the main extreme right-wing opposition party that could force him to abandon peace talks indefinitely.

The start of formal coalition contacts came a day after Barak announced Israel was taking "time out" from peace talks, to the chagrin of US President Bill Clinton and dovish members of Barak's center-left government.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was outright contemptuous, saying Barak could "go to hell".

Palestinian stone throwers also clashed with Israeli soldiers at two trouble spots in the Gaza Strip, with 36 Palestinians wounded overall, according to hospital doctors.

In the West Bank town of Bethlehem, protesters spray-painted a donkey to resemble the Israeli flag, and tied up the animal in the street where rock throwers and soldiers clashed. The protesters also painted the names of Barak and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on the donkey.

With no letup in the confrontations, which have claimed 123 lives in 26 days of fighting, the Israelis clamped down on several Palestinian areas. The Israelis again closed the Palestinian airport in Gaza City, further restricting Palestinian travel.

"We consider this as another step in the hard siege on the Palestinian people," said Salman Abu Halib, general director of Palestinian Airlines.

The army imposed a blockade on Beit Jalla, a Palestinian town from which Palestinian gunmen have been shooting at the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem.

Last night, Israel responded to the shooting with missiles and tank-mounted machine gun fire. Beit Jalla and nearby Bethlehem were plunged into darkness, a Beit Jalla factory was destroyed and several homes damaged.

One rocket hit a children's bedroom in the home of the Nazal family in Beit Jalla. Sohana Nazal said moments earlier she had moved her children, George, three, and Ghada, two, from the room because it faces Israeli tanks on a nearby hill.

"We heard a loud crash. We thought it (the rocket) had landed on the street. Only when we opened the door to their room and saw all the smoke, did we realize what had happened," Nazal said.

Hundreds of civilians have fled Beit Jalla and the nearby Aida refugee camp. The Israeli army chief of staff, Lt Gen Shaul Mofaz, said life for the residents of Beit Jalla can only return to normal if the shooting from the Palestinian side stops.

"If they make it impossible to conduct a normal life on the Israeli side, I do not think we can tolerate such a situation," Mofaz told Israel radio.

The Israeli Parliament returns from summer recess on Sunday. If Barak fails to bring opposition leader Ariel Sharon and his Likud party into the government, early elections appear inevitable.

Barak and his negotiators were to meet separately today with Sharon as well as representatives from the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party and the dovish Meretz factions, both former coalition members.

Sharon has said he would not join the government unless Barak distances himself from concessions he offered the Palestinians during the Mideast summit at Camp David, the US presidential retreat, in July.

At the time, Barak was ready to give the Palestinians more than 90 percent of the West Bank, as well as control over parts of traditionally Arab east Jerusalem. Critics said Sharon's presence in the government would dim hopes for peace.

"I think a national unity government ... would make the prospect of peace more distant and undermine the belief in the world that we really do want to make peace," said Justice Minister Yossi Beilin of Barak's One Israel alignment.

"If Sharon will have the right to veto peace negotiations, I will not be able to sit in it (the government)," said Beilin, a key player in previous interim accords.

The weekend's Arab summit held Israel responsible for the violence and called for international intervention, but did not make it obligatory for Arab governments who had made peace with Israel to sever their relations with the Jewish state.

Clinton and Mubarak have been trying to get Barak and Arafat back to the negotiating table. While campaigning Sunday, Clinton spoke to Barak by telephone for 15 minutes. Clinton said he would keep working with both sides to try to get them to honor a truce agreement worked out last week and to return to peace talks eventually, according to White House officials.

In another development, the Israeli Cabinet approved a $1bn development plan for Arab communities in Israel. Over four years, the money is to be used to improve schools and combat unemployment by setting up industrial parks.

The decision was aimed at appeasing Israel's one million Arab citizens who have complained of systematic discrimination by successive governments. Thousands of Israeli Arab citizens have joined the Palestinians' protests in recent weeks, both as a show of support and to spotlight their own complaints.

At least 10 Israeli Arabs have been killed in clashes with police. The government has said it would investigate the deaths, but Arab legislators said a two-member panel set up fell far short of a judicial commission of inquiry they have sought.