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Tight Security For Israeli Holiday

An Israeli soldier scans Palestinian-controlled area in the divided West Bank town of Hebron.
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Fearing Palestinian attacks as it celebrated its independence Thursday, Israel dispatched extra police and soldiers to its cities and vacation spots. Violence in the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, left five Palestinians dead and six injured.

A bomb exploded late Wednesday near a school in Rafah in southern Gaza, near the border with Egypt, killing three police and a civilian, said Ghazi Jibali, the Gaza police commander. Hospital officials said six Palestinians were injured, including two critically.

Jibali charged that Palestinians working for Israeli intelligence planted the bomb. An Israeli army spokeswoman said Thursday the military knew nothing about the blast.

A spokesman for the Popular Resistance group gave another version of events, saying three members, who also serve as police officers, were about to carry out a bomb attack on Israeli targets when Israeli forces ambushed them. The group is associated with Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement and has taken responsibility for mortar attacks and bombings against Jewish settlements and soldiers in the past.

A leaflet distributed at the funeral of the four identified one of them as Ramdan Azam, the leader of the Popular Resistance. The leaflet said the group would continue to fire mortars at Israeli targets. At the funeral procession, dozens of gunmen fired in the air.


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On a farm east of Gaza, Palestinian doctors said a farmer, the father of seven children, was killed Thursday by gunfire that came from an Israeli army position. The Israeli military said soldiers shot a Palestinian who crossed the border fence into Israel and did not halt after warning shots were fired.

Also, Palestinian officials said that Ibrahim Abu Awaila, 20, wounded by Israeli gunfire at the Khan Yunis refugee camp two months ago, died of his wounds Wednesday in a Cairo hospital where he was being treated.

In the West Bank town of Beit Jalla on Wednesday night, gunfire erupted between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli soldiers protecting the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo, damaging some houses there. Palestinians said Israeli tanks shelled their houses, causing extensive damage.

"What did my children do to get their bedroom shelled?" asked Samer Nazal, with tears in his eyes.

The Israeli army said they responded with tank shelling on Beit Jalla after Palestinian gunmen opened fire on Gilo four times.

Throughout Israel on Thursday, police reinforced by soldiers patrolled in large numbers as Israel's Independence Day celebrations continued.

Security officials urged Israelis to celebrate as usual, with picnics and gatherings, but to be on the lookout for suspicious objects, parcels and people because of a wave of Palestinian bomb attacks in Israeli cities.

Israeli officials have spoken o easing restrictions on the Palestinians if seven months of violence wanes. One proposal would remove travel restrictions from the desert oasis town of Jericho, said an Israeli official, requesting anonymity.

But until Friday morning, after the Independence Day observance, crossing points between Israel and the Palestinian territories were to be closed tight to prevent attacks, the military said.

The holiday, marking Israel's 53rd birthday, started with an abrupt transition from Wednesday's Memorial Day commemorating soldiers who died in Israel's wars. Soldiers in formation at the Mt. Herzl military cemetery passed symbolic flags from one unit to another, and somber music gave way to fireworks as the festivities began.

In a holiday interview, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said his forces operate inside Palestinian territory almost daily. "There is no defense for terrorists because of the fact that they are in Area "A" (Palestinian territory)," he told army radio.

Sharon confirmed that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat gave a strict order to stop the firing of mortars at Jewish settlements in Gaza and Israeli villages outside the territory.

Arafat called Sharon's son Omri to tell him of the ban, but Omri Sharon told him that several mortar shells had just exploded.

Sharon said Arafat expressed disbelief, but agreed to a joint investigation of the incident.

"It appears that sometimes Arafat does not believe the information he gets from his own side," Sharon observed.

Up to now Sharon has expressed skepticism about Arafat's intention to scale back Palestinian violence that began Sept. 28, after Sharon visited a disputed holy site in the Old City of Jerusalem and said that Israel is the sole sovereign there.

Sharon has said that there can be no peace negotiations with the Palestinians, but has approved contacts aimed at stopping the violence, which has killed 415 people on the Palestinian side and 70 people on the Israeli side.

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