4 Dead In Gaza Violence

Israeli troops killed three Palestinian gunmen and a 10-year-old boy in the Gaza Strip, security officials said Friday, as polls indicated the prime minister's approval rating is dropping, in part because of the prolonged deadlock in peace efforts.

The 10-year-old boy, Mahmoud Kayed, was shot early Friday east of Gaza City as he was trapping birds near the border fence with Israel, hospital officials said. A 12-year-old companion was wounded in the leg.

Palestinian security officials said the children came under fire from a tank. Soldiers fired from a mounted machine gun and launched a tank shell, the officials said. Doctors said the boy was killed by two bullets.

The Israeli army said soldiers spotted three people in a restricted area along the fence, which militants repeatedly have tried to infiltrate. The three carried equipment the soldiers assumed was a bomb. Troops opened fire and hit one of the three, the army said.

Overnight, Israeli soldiers killed three Palestinian gunmen in two clashes in Gaza. The Israeli army confirmed the two incidents, but had no details on Palestinian casualties.

In the West Bank town of Jenin, the army surrounded a house where a wanted militant was believed to be hiding. Tanks surrounded the house as troops waited for the suspect to come out. The army said the neighborhood was under curfew.

Meanwhile, a dispute between Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia over control of security forces remained unresolved Friday, despite a series of stormy meetings in recent days. The standoff is preventing the formation of a new Palestinian government, holding up a renewal of high-level talks with Israel and jeopardizing a conference of international donors.

A poll indicating a further drop in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's popularity was published Friday in the Maariv daily. It said just 34 percent of respondents were pleased with Sharon's performance, compared with 40 percent in a survey two weeks ago. Disapproval rose from 54 percent to 57 percent. The survey of 893 respondents had a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points.

A lopsided prisoner exchange with the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah also is hurting Sharon, commentators wrote. Sharon will take the proposed deal to his Cabinet on Sunday, but approval is not assured.

Since being elected by a landslide in February 2001, Sharon had enjoyed a strong approval rating, despite continued Israeli-Palestinian violence and an economic recession. However, in recent weeks, his popularity has begun to drop.

The Israeli public has grown increasingly dissatisfied with the stalled peace process, double-digit unemployment and a weak economy. The prisoner exchange also is harming Sharon, wrote Maariv commentator Hemi Shalev.

Under the emerging deal, Israel would release about 400 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners — including two guerrilla leaders — in exchange for kidnapped Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three soldiers.

But the deal does not address the fate of Ron Arad, an Israeli airman who was captured in Lebanon in 1986. At a tense meeting Thursday night, Arad's family accused the government of abandoning the airman and presented an emotional letter from the airman's teenage daughter, Yuval.

"I always held some hope of meeting him, maybe my children will know him, like I should have," she wrote. "Now I understand that it won't happen."

In the West Bank, the army removed a roadblock west of Ramallah, allowing traffic to pass on the road for the first time in more than a year and half.

The massive barrier at Ein Arik was built after Palestinian gunmen killed six soldiers guarding the checkpoint in February 2002. At least three other roadblocks remain around Ramallah.

"Removing it is good, but not enough," said Mustafa Issa, the Palestinian governor of Ramallah. "If there is a goodwill gesture, they should remove the others."

The move came two days after Israel announced it was easing up on travel restrictions in the West Bank. The dozens of checkpoints have hindered movement throughout the West Bank, preventing many Palestinians from going to school or work.

Israeli officials said the decision to ease the travel restrictions was meant as a gesture to Qureia as he struggles to form a new government.

At issue in the Arafat-Qureia dispute is the appointment of an interior minister who would consolidate the security forces — some of which are under the command of Arafat — and play a key role in possible action against violent groups.

Arafat has blocked Qureia's choice for the job, Gen. Nasser Yousef, in part because he does not want to relinquish control over the security services. Qureia's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, was pushed out by Arafat over the same issue.

Arafat and Qureia met Thursday, along with leaders of the ruling Fatah movement, but failed to resolve the dispute.

The United States has been pushing for consolidation of the security forces under control of the prime minister as a precursor for action against militants. However, Qureia has said he prefers a negotiated end to violence, not a crackdown.