Violence flares as Mideast report awaited

Violence flares as Mideast report awaited

A U.S.-led commission is due to issue its final report on eight months of Israeli-Palestinian violence on Monday after fighting again flared across the West Bank.

Former U.S. Senator George Mitchell's committee was due to issue its report in New York. It was expected to demand both sides halt the violence and call for Israel to freeze Jewish settlements, a demand rejected by the Israeli government.

At least 441 Palestinians, 13 Israeli Arabs and 87 Israelis have been killed since a Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule erupted last September after peace negotiations deadlocked.

Israel denied Palestinian accusations that it tried to assassinate West Bank Preventive Security chief Jibril Rajoub, whose Ramallah house was hit by three tank shells on Sunday. He was unharmed but three bodyguards were hurt.

"The Israelis are insisting on assassinating every Palestinian. Whether he is a civilian. Whether he is a leader. Whether he is a simple person," Rajoub told reporters.

The Israeli army said troops near Ramallah came under Palestinian fire and responded with tank shells at "the precise source of the fire, which was definitely from the courtyard of Jibril Rajoub's house".

"He is not a target. On the contrary, we want to talk to him," Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Israeli television. Rajoub has negotiated security pacts with Israeli officials in the past.

At least 10 Palestinians were wounded by Israeli tank shells, fired in gunbattles near the West Bank towns of Ramallah, Bethlehem and Qalqiliya. Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen also exchanged heavy fire in the West Bank town of Hebron.

The violence reached a new peak on Friday when Israel responded to a Palestinian suicide bomb attack that killed five Israeli shoppers in the town of Netanya by deploying F-16 fighters against Palestinian security targets in the West Bank.

At least 12 Palestinian policemen were killed in the raids, which brought new calls for an end to the violence and the heightening of a security alert in Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pledged his government would use as much military might as necessary against Palestinians despite scathing criticism of the F-16 raids.

Israeli newspapers called the decision to unleash the U.S.-built F-16s "pointless" and "stupid". U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan branded Israel's response "disproportionate".

U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney urged Israel to stop using its F-16s, which were provided to Israel on the condition that they be used for defensive purposes only. He said both sides should halt the violence, warning that the present path led to disaster.

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