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Five Die In Mideast Clashes

Five people died and over 200 were wounded Tuesday as Palestinians marked the date of Israel's founding with angry demonstrations.

Tens of thousands packed town squares for protests on the 53rd anniversary of Israel's founding — known to Palestinians as "the catastrophe." Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat urged his people to "stand strong."

Wearing his traditional military uniform, Arafat called for the "full and comprehensive withdrawal of the occupation army and settlers" from all Arab lands seized by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.

"Victory is just an hour away," he said.

In his taped speech, Arafat lashed out at Israel, though he never directly referred to the Jewish state. Arafat said that while Palestinians remained committed to peace, "executioners continue to walk through the puddles of our blood with their military escalation and siege of our towns."

Responding to Arafat, his partner to the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said: "We must continue to build bridges and not walls of fire and blood."

During the 1948 Mideast war that followed Israel's creation, an estimated 750,000 Palestinians, according to U.N. figures, fled or were driven out of their homes by Israeli troops. Many refugees and their descendants live to this day in camps in the West Bank, Gaza and neighboring Arab states.


Reuters
Palestinians fire their guns during a demonstration.

Israel maintains that allowing the refugees to return would undermine the Jewish character of their state, where about 5 million Jews live.

From the Nusseirat, Bureij and Mughazi refugee camps in the center of the Gaza Strip, some 30,000 people walked to the main north-south road. The crowd chanted "no surrender" and "The uprising will continue until we uproot the occupiers from our land."

Several old men carried keys to their former homes in what is now Israel, and gunmen fired in the air.

At noon, a three-minute siren rang out, accompanied by the sounds of Muslim prayer calls and church bells. Marchers stood silently and motorists got out of their cars. Some Palestinians flashed victory signs and others pressed their right hand to their heart.

Rock-throwing and tire-burning by protesters quickly escalated into an exchange of gunfire in several cities.

A bodyguard to Islamic militant Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was killed when Israeli tanks fired on a Hamas unit seen firing mortar bombs from inside Gaza, the Israeli army said. Soldiers shot dead a second Palestinian in another incident.

In the West Bank city of Ramalah, two Palestinians were killed by what witnesses said was Israeli sniper fire.

Witnesses said at one point Israeli snipers fired into a crowd of Palestinian demonstrators in Ramallah, picking off people one by one in what a Palestinian official called a new army execution-style policy.

Gunfire echoed throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip long into the night. Security sources said a mortar bomb smashed a Jewish settlement house in Gaza while others slammed into Israel. Israeli tanks fired shells at Palestinian towns.


Reuters
Palestinians observe a minute of silence in central Ramallah for "Al Naqba."

An Israeli was also killed. Late Tuesday, Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank riddled a passing car with bullets, killing a 21-year-old Jewish settler woman and lightly wounding her father near the settlement of Maale Michmash, the army said.

At least 424 Palestinians, 80 Israelis and 13 Israeli Arabs have been killed since the revolt erupted after peace talks stalled.

From Jordan to Lebanon, thousands of Palestinians joined the protests while Arafat met President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

The two leaders discussed a report of an international fact-finding committee led by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell as well as an Egyptian-Jordanian plan for reviving peace moves.

The report urged an end to violence and confidence-building measures such as a freeze in Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel has rejected a settlement freeze. The Palestinians have accepted the document.

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