Israel's government has delayed the final handover of Arab villages near Jerusalem after the Palestinian territories exploded Monday in the worst violence in years.
Demonstrations across the West Bank and Gaza Strip turned violent as Palestinians marked what they term al-Nakba or the "catastrophe," when hundreds of thousands of them were made homeless by the creation of the state of Israel 52 years ago.
Hospital officials identified three Palestinians shot dead by Israeli gunfire in separate gun battles in the West Bank Monday, the fourth straight day of unrest that has also left around 500 wounded.
The worst confrontation erupted near Beit-El north of the West Bank town of Ramallah, where one member of the Palestinian security forces, Ahmed Gamal Abdel Fatah, 20, was shot dead in a bloody hours-long shoot-out.
Scores were wounded in the area, including 30 who were shot in a chaotic gun-battle that left the area resembling a war-zone, black smoke billowing into the sky.
A second Palestinian, Ayed As-Saffadi, 19, was killed when Israeli forces and protestors exchanged fire in the northern West Bank town of Nablus, hospital officials said.
The third casualty, Bashar Shenir, 21, was shot in the head by an Israeli soldier in Nablus, where a crowd of some 1,000 demonstrators marched on Joseph's tomb, a holy Jewish site under Israeli control.
Another Palestinian teenager was killed in Qalqilya in riots on Sunday.
Clashes also erupted Monday in Bethlehem, Hebron, Jenin and in the Gaza Strip, continuing into the night in Nablus and the outskirts of Bethlehem.
Over the previous three days, scores of people were also hurt during demonstrations in support of the some 1,600 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, many of whom are on hunger strike.
The Palestinian news agency WAFA reported that, in addition, two children had died when Israeli settlers "deliberately" ran them over near the West Bank town of Qalqilya.
However Israel radio said the incident was simply a road accident.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak had earlier said four Palestinians were killed -- without giving details -- and made a personal telephone call to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to express concern over the violence.
"Mr. Barak demanded that the Palestinian Authority should take all the necessary measures to ensure there were no further casualties," a statement from his office said.
Barak said six Israelis were also injured, one of them seriously.
US ENVOY IN PALESTINE
US envoy for Mideast peace talks Denis Ross was expected to meet Palestinian President Yasser Arafat on Tuesday to resume mediation efforts a day after the bloodiest violence in two years convulsed the West Bank and Gaza Strip, according to Reuters.
Ross arrived late on Monday for a new round of talks in the midst of the clashes.
In Washington, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright urged Israeli and Palestinian leaders to do what they can to rein in the violence.
"Obviously it's of concern and we don't believe that violence is going to solve anything," Albright told reporters.
BAD TIME FOR BARAK
The heightened violence was an unwanted backdrop for Barak's attempts to push forward the peace process through the handover of more land to the Palestinians.
The clashes erupted as the Israeli cabinet and parliament approved the handover of three Arab villages near Jerusalem to the full control of Arafat's self-rule authority. The vote was 56 for, 48 against and one abstention.
Barak, who faced some fierce opposition to the move, gave some ground to his detractors by announcing that the handovers would be indefinitely delayed until calm is restored.
Barak defended his decision to hand over control of the three Arab villages near Jerusalem, saying it would secure Israel's sovereignty over Jerusalem and avoid the chances of "impasse and deterioration" in the peace process.
But Housing Minister Yitzhak Levy of the National Religious Party, which promotes the cause of Jewish settlers, immediately announced his resignation, protesting that the handover would divide Jerusalem -- a city both Israel and the Palestinians consider as their capital.
"Today they fire on our soldiers from Ramallah and tomorrow they will fire on us from Abu Dis," charged Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon, referring to one of the villages to be returned.
ARAFAT REFUSE ABD RABBO’S RESIGNATION
But on the Palestinian front, its top negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo quit in protest on Monday at the launch of a channel of secret negotiations between Israel and Palestinian officials who are meeting in Sweden.
Palestinian leader Arafat refused to accept Rabbo's resignation, a top official told Palestinian radio – (Several Sources)
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