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Israeli soldier, Palestinian gunman killed

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

JERUSALEM -- An Israeli soldier and a Palestinian gunman died in a night-long gun battle in the tense city of Hebron that ended early Tuesday when Israeli forces destroyed a building where the gunman was holed up.

In Gaza, Israeli forces killed two armed Palestinians near a Jewish settlement.

Meanwhile, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat spent Tuesday studying a parliamentary measure to name a prime minister with authority over internal affairs, sending the bill to a Justice Ministry committee instead of signing it as expected.

The Palestinian parliament approved creation of the new position on Monday after Arafat succumbed to intense world and local pressure to relinquish some of his powers. The parliament would have to vote on the position again if Arafat asks for changes.

On Monday, the measure passed two readings by identical 73-1 votes. Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh said Arafat would sign it in the next two days, then appoint his longtime deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, as premier.

According to the bill, Arafat retains authority over security forces and peace negotiations.

Abu Rdeneh said now that the Palestinians have fulfilled U.S. and European demands to appoint a prime minister, international mediators must "press the Israeli government to stop aggression and withdraw from Palestinian areas to give hope again to the region."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher emphasized that the prime minister must have powers and authority.

"I think the bottom line for us is that there was a significant definition of powers and that we look forward to seeing it work out in practice and how it works out in practice," Boucher said.

Secretary of State Colin Powell called Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom on Tuesday, according to a statement from Shalom's office. It said Shalom told Powell of the importance of giving Abbas "responsibilities over the areas of security and foreign affairs, because if Arafat continues to concentrate authority over those areas in his hands, there will be no progress in relations between us and the Palestinians."

Israel, joined by the United States, has demanded that Arafat be sidelined, charging that he has not done enough to stop Palestinian attacks against Israelis. Palestinians counter that Israeli military operations are responsible for the violence, now in its 30th month.

In Hebron, Israeli soldiers fired a tank shell at a building early Tuesday, then tore it down after an exchange of fire with Palestinian gunmen that went through the night. The body of a gunman was found in the rubble.

An Israeli soldier was killed and five wounded in the exchange, according to the Israeli military. The militant Islamic Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a radical PLO faction, claimed responsibility for the shooting.

The confrontation took place along a road used by Jewish settlers to walk from Kiryat Arba to Hebron, a few hundred yards away, on their way to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, burial site of biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and three of their wives. The site is holy to Jews and Muslims.

The alley, snaking between stone buildings in an old part of Hebron, has been the scene of several deadly attacks. In November, 12 Israeli soldiers and security guards were killed in an ambush, and two soldiers were killed in December.

Hebron is the only West Bank city divided into Palestinian and Israeli zones. Israeli forces patrol the downtown area, including the holy site and three enclaves where about 500 Jewish settlers live. Kiryat Arba is home to about 6,000 settlers.

Friction and violence between Israelis and Palestinians is frequent. Some of the settlers are the most radical of the Jews in the West Bank, and the city is a center of Palestinian militant activity, dominated by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, responsible for hundreds of attacks against Israelis.

Opposition Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna called for evacuation of Israeli settlers from Hebron. The settlement "will not be able to remain there because there is no way to protect it," he said. Responding, Hebron settlers spokesman Noam Arnon said Mitzna was "defeatist" and said that Israel "cannot surrender to terrorism."

In the Gaza Strip, the bodies of two Palestinians were found Tuesday near the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom. The military said soldiers had spotted the two digging near Kfar Darom late Monday, deemed them suspicious and opened fire. Knives and a bag with a dozen pipe bombs were found nearby, the army said.

Also Tuesday, a 20-year-old Israeli woman died of wounds suffered in a Palestinian suicide bombing of a Haifa bus on Wednesday, bringing the death toll to 17 passengers, including an American teenager.


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