Israel tightens blockade on Palestinian towns after heavy fighting

JERUSALEM - Israel tightened its blockade of Palestinian towns heading into the weekend after 10 people were killed in one of the worst days of violence since clashes began over two months ago.

At least seven funerals were expected Saturday, the second of two ''days of rage'' announced by the Palestinian leadership to mark the 13th anniversary of their first uprising. And Marwan Barghouti, the head of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement in the West Bank, said the fighting will only intensify.

''The uprising is a strategic choice of the Palestinian people, and it can't be stopped,'' Barghouti said.

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, further restricting Palestinian travel. Palestinians have been banned from entering Israel under a general closure imposed after the fighting broke out in September.

The Palestinian Cabinet met late Friday in Gaza and termed Israel's policy one of ''collective punishment'' that would 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 came 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 more 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 but that a peace deal was still his ultimate goal.

In Friday's first incident, Palestinian gunmen opened fire on a van carrying Israelis to the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba near Hebron, killing the driver and a passenger, a 39-year-old schoolteacher and mother of six. 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 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 matriarch.

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

The months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting first 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, more than 300 people have been killed, the vast majority Palestinians.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah on Friday, 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 was standing 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.

The day's last casualty came after nightfall, when Palestinian gunmen fired on an Israeli bus near Jericho, killing an Israeli passenger and wounding a second.


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