- The Washington Times - Monday, October 30, 2000

JERUSALEM A column of Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers rolled into the Gaza Strip and exchanged fire with Palestinian gunmen yesterday, a day of renewed clashes that left five Palestinians dead and dozens wounded.

Amid the turmoil, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak met Ariel Sharon, leader of the hawkish Likud party, in an attempt to forge a coalition government. No immediate agreement was reported.

In Gaza, the Karni road junction resembled a battlefield with acrid smoke from burning tires darkening the air and tanks moving along the road, their occasional fire punctuating the sound of assault-rifle rounds.

The army said it sent the armored column to secure free movement of Jewish settlers on the key road, which cuts through the strip and has been the site of violent Palestinian protests.

The tanks responded to fire from Palestinian police by shooting from mounted machine guns, the military said. A 14-year-old boy and a 31-year-old man were killed, medics said. At least 25 persons were injured overall in Gaza.

"We've retaliated with tanks and helicopter gunships at certain points, and we used them with consideration," said the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz. The military, he added, plans to begin initiating action rather than reacting to gunfire.

Military officials said the army wanted to phase down its aggressive image and reduce friction with stone-throwing Arab youths, focusing instead on pinpoint struggles against armed Palestinian radicals.

Also in Gaza, Palestinians set off a homemade bomb and fired at a bus carrying Jewish settlers near the Morag settlement. The army responded with fire, the military said.

In the West Bank town of Nablus, two Palestinians were killed and four were wounded in clashes. The army said soldiers opened fire when the Palestinians' customary stones and firebombs gave way to guns. However, Suleiman Narkib, a Palestinian doctor at the site, said he did not see any gunfire coming from the Palestinian side.

Another Palestinian was killed last night in violent clashes near the West Bank town of Jenin, and a 20-year-old Arab from the same area died two days after being shot in the head. Israeli police, meanwhile, said 25-year-old Marik Gavrilov, an Israeli who was found dead inside a burned car in the West Bank town of Ramallah on Saturday, was killed for political reasons.

The deaths raised the overall count since the bloodshed erupted more than a month ago to 140, the vast majority Palestinians.

While the army and protesters fought in Gaza, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat presided over the opening of a new Gaza hospital and pledged that the Palestinian fight will continue.

But the Palestinians were showing signs of economic distress.

Israeli authorities have prevented Palestinians from entering Israel since Oct. 6, shortly after the violence began. Normally, about 120,000 Palestinians work in Israel, and industries including tourism and agriculture have been hit hard by the closure.

Mohammed Shtayyeh, managing director of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, said unemployment in the West Bank and Gaza was 13 percent before the closures and that the areas have seen many layoffs since then.

The Palestinian territories remain heavily dependent on Israel, importing $2 billion worth of goods each year from the Jewish state 86 percent of total imports.

Palestinian leaders are concerned about recent Israeli talk of a "unilateral separation," which would involve setting borders and possibly tightening economic restrictions. Palestinian Economic Minister Maher Masri said economic relations should be "based on a free-trade arrangement."

Mr. Shtayyeh said there were measures the Palestinians could take if Israel went ahead with unilateral separation and continued to maintain the closures.

"We can let all the sewage flow into the Jewish settlements [in the West Bank], we can do all these unilateral measures as well," he said.

On the political front, Mr. Barak began the day saying he was close to forming a parliamentary coalition that could prevent the collapse of his minority government. Mr. Barak is trying to finalize a deal with Likud in a bid to retain power and stave off early elections.

But his meeting with Mr. Sharon was inconclusive, and aides to the two worked frantically to forge a coalition before parliament reconvened today following a three-month recess.

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