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Israeli Incursion Condemned

Palestinians and the United States Wednesday condemned an Israeli incursion into Palestinian territory, as an Israeli envoy asked Washington to broker a cease-fire.

Israeli tanks and bulldozers thrust into a Gaza refugee camp early Wednesday, demolishing homes, killing a Palestinian gunman and wounding 14 people before withdrawing.

Similar to an incursion last month, the Israeli army said troops moved in to destroy buildings that Palestinian gunmen had used as cover to fire at soldiers and as bases for planting roadside bombs.

As Israeli troops poured in tank and automatic fire, Palestinians fought back with grenade launchers and automatic weapons during the four-hour raid. Three children were among the wounded.

The Palestinian Authority denounced what it called a "planned aggression" that threatened regional stability.

State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said such incursions into Palestinian territory "undermine efforts to defuse the situation and bring an end to the violence and escalation."

Israel captured the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East war. It handed the territory back to Palestinian rule in 1994 under the 1993 Oslo interim peace accords, but held on to a chunk to accommodate some 7,000 Jewish settlers who live next to a Palestinian population of 1.2 million.

At least 402 Palestinians, 76 Israelis and 13 Israeli Arabs have been killed in the conflict.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said after meeting Secretary of State Colin Powell Wednesday that Israel wanted the United States to arrange an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire as a step toward negotiations to end seven months of bloodshed.

In an interview with Reuters after his talks with Powell, Peres said the cease-fire was something only the United States could bring about.

Powell said that Palestinians can expect more concessions from Israel if they curb violence and reopen negotiations.

"Once the violence goes down, more will be forthcoming from the Israeli side," Powell said.

The Palestinians will be free to bring every issue to the table, including the future of Jerusalem, Peres said. But, he said, the Israeli government would not renew an offer the Palestinian leader rejected last year.

The Israeli government earlier this week said it would remove restrictions on Palestinian workers so they could get to and from their jobs in Israel from the West Bank and Gaza. It also said no new Jewish settlements would be built.

The travel and other curbs were imposed as a strategy to counter terrorist attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians. Even though the violence has not stopped, Peres said on his arrival Tuesday in Washington that his government was willing to take a risk of infiltration.

Click here for background on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In addition, Israel has agreed to ook at an Egyptian-Jordanian initiative that calls for an end to bloodshed, confidence-building measures and the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

A key element of the plan, endorsed by Palestinian leaders, is a halt to construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as one of several confidence-building measures.

But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, reiterating his demand for a complete halt to Palestinian violence, said Israel would have to wage a protracted struggle for its security and rejected the idea of halting the expansion of settlements.

Meanwhile, an investigating team led by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell has written its report on the causes of the Israeli-Palestinian violence which broke out in September 2000 and delivered a draft report to the U.S government Tuesday.

It will also send copies to Israel, the Palestinian Authority and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Reeker told a daily briefing.

The commission will not publish the report until it hears comments in response from the Israelis and Palestinians, and possibly makes amendments, a U.S. official said.

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