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New gunfire as Barak shows willingness
JERUSALEM -- Fresh violence erupted in the West Bank on Tuesday as Palestinian and Israeli leaders studied U.S. proposals to revive peace talks.
Amid continuing international diplomacy to try to end the conflict, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said Israel was prepared to accept the Americans' proposals if Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat did as well.
But Arafat said some of the U.S. ideas, presented after five days of U.S.-hosted talks last week, fell short of proposals he had already rejected at July's failed Camp David meetings.
Negotiations have been stalemated since those talks collapsed and further undermined by nearly three months of violence in which at least 340 people, mostly Palestinians, have died.
After a recent lull in hostilities, a fierce gun battle between Palestinians and Israeli troops erupted near the West Bank city of Nablus early Tuesday, the Israeli army reported.
The Israel Defence Forces said the fighting began overnight when Palestinians opened fire on a Jewish settlement. Israeli troops responded by firing heavy machine gun rounds, the Israeli army said. No casualties have been reported, and no immediate word from the Palestinians about the firefight.
There had been a lull over Christmas after three months of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with Israeli and Palestinian leaders considering U.S. proposals for reviving peace talks.
There have been no deaths reported in nearly three days, but the Israeli army said two Jewish settlers were wounded on Monday night when Palestinian demonstrators near the West Bank town of Bethlehem pelted their car with stones.
And on Tuesday, the Palestinian group Hamas, which opposes negotiations, claimed responsibility for a suicide attack last week in an Israeli-owned West Bank cafe in which three Israeli soldiers were injured, wire services reported.
Barak and Mubarak to meet
U.S. President Bill Clinton, who steps down January 20, has set a Wednesday deadline for the parties to decide whether his ideas are an acceptable basis for continuing talks.
Barak told Israel Channel 2 television on Monday: "The natural tendency is of course to want a lot of changes. ... If the other side agrees to accept the (ideas) as they are, then we too will need to accept them.
"I am not sure, however, that that is the situation, and at the moment I don't know what the answers of the sides will be," he added.
Arafat flew to Cairo on Monday to brief Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Clinton's proposals. Barak is to meet with Mubarak on Thursday at Sharm El-Sheikh.
"(The U.S. proposals) demand deep study, as some of the positions were much less than what was proposed at Camp David," Arafat told reporters on his return to Gaza City.
Under the proposal, Israel would back off from control of Muslim holy sites in traditionally Arab eastern Jerusalem, with Palestinian concessions over refugees' right of return. Jerusalem has been a crucial sticking point throughout negotiations.
The sides have said the U.S. proposals included Israel's withdrawal from most of eastern Jerusalem, land it captured in the 1967 Six-Day War along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israel has declared the entire city its undivided capital, while Palestinians want eastern Jerusalem as the capital of an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza.
In the interview, Barak, who analysts say is anxious to forge a deal ahead of elections on February 6, heatedly denied he would break a 1999 campaign promise not to divide Jerusalem.
"I am not dividing Jerusalem, I am going to make a determined attempt to put an end to the conflict," Barak yelled at the interviewer.
But he pointedly differentiated between the two Muslim mosques on the compound of the holiest site, revered by Jews as Temple Mount and Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, and the Jewish bond to the foundations of the two biblical temples beneath it.
Reuters contributed to this report.
Mideast peace at 'moment of truth'
Israel Defense Forces (in Hebrew)
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