Tension ran high at the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan Monday after Israeli commandos shot dead five Palestinians, despite new steps to calm the Palestinian territories and revive peace-making.
As Palestinian groups warned of further unrest during Ramadan, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud was bracing for a parliamentary vote on Tuesday that could pave the way for new elections and topple his 17-month-old government.
And in a controversial report likely to enflame Palestinian sentiments, the Israeli army said it was possible Palestinian rather than Israeli bullets killed Mohammed Al-Durra, the 12-year-boy whose death has become a graphic and haunting symbol of the two-month Intifada.
In the latest bloodletting, the Israeli army said its troops killed five "terrorists" who opened fire on a car near a Jewish settlement outside Qalqilyia in the northern West Bank late Sunday.
Qalqilya governor Mustafa al-Malki accused Israel of shooting them in cold blood.
The army identified them as members of the militia wing of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fateh faction, which Israel accuses of waging anti-Israeli attacks, but this was denied by a local Fateh official.
And an official from the militant Islamic group Hamas said four of them were members of the movement, which is violently opposed to Israel and has carried out numerous deadly bomb attacks in recent years.
Their deaths, with another two Palestinians dying of wounds suffered in earlier clashes, brought to 290 the number of people killed in the tide of violence that has washed over the region since late September.
Tension was also high on the Lebanese border after an Israeli soldier was killed in a roadside bomb attack Sunday by Shiite Hizbollah guerrillas, the first deadly violence there since Israel pulled out of Lebanon in May.
The latest bloodshed came despite a flurry of meetings between top Israel and Palestinian security officials to try to resume cooperation, although Palestinians said they had achieved nothing.
"This meeting was a waste of time because Israel is refusing to respect arrangements already concluded," the head of general security in the Gaza Strip, Abdel Razeq Majeidah, said after meeting Sunday with Israeli army commander for the southern region Yom Tov Samia.
The contacts followed an agreement between Barak and Arafat last week to resume low-level security cooperation.
In a new peace push, leading Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qorei said he had floated a plan with US and EU officials aimed at reviving the peace process suspended by Barak last month.
Qorei called for a series of confidence building measures, for Israel to carry out a so-called third phase redeployment from the West Bank, and for a new mechanism for negotiations that widens the international involvement in the peace process, whose main broker is currently the United States.
But in a move likely to anger Palestinians, Israel's parliament voted into law a bill making it more difficult for any government to make concessions on Jerusalem, the holy city claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians as their capital.
Deep discord over the fate of east Jerusalem which Israel occupied in war 33 years ago led to the collapse of the Camp David summit in July.
And in another setback for the Palestinians, a US official said Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had won assurances from Russian counterpart Igor Ivanov that Moscow will not support a UN resolution calling for the deployment of observers in the Palestinian territories -- something Israel vehemently objects to.
But UN Human Rights High Commissioner Mary Robinson denounced the worsening human rights situation and said "every effort" should be made to look into sending in international monitors.
The Israeli army said Monday that an investigation into the death of al-Durra cast "serious doubt" that the boy died from Israeli gunfire and that it was "quite plausible" he was hit by Palestinian bullets.
Israel's leading Haaretz newspaper earlier this month described the investigation as "dubious" and "amateurish" raising questions about a reenactment which it said was initiated by two civilians with no ballistics expertise.
Barak meanwhile is facing his own political crisis, with parliament to vote Tuesday on first reading on a bill proposed by the right-wing Likud opposition party calling for early elections.
Israel is also bracing for further violence during Ramadan with Palestinian movements calling for an escalation of the Intifada and for Muslims to attend en masse the al-Aqsa mosque in east Jerusalem even by breaking through Israeli military checkpoints.
Fatah is also calling for marches Wednesday to mark the anniversary of the UN resolution on the partition of Palestine in 1947 -- JERUSALEM (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)