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Combat Erupts in W. Bank, Gaza : Death Toll at 55; Israel Deploys Troops, Tanks

Mideast: Total of 44 Palestinians, 11 Israelis killed, hundreds wounded as firefights spread. Jerusalem declares state of emergency. U.S. tries to arrange meeting between Netanyahu and Arafat.


RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian police and demonstrators battled Israeli forces throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Thursday in the third day of an escalating crisis that has left at least 55 people dead and hundreds wounded.

At least 44 Palestinian officers and civilians and 11 Israelis--all of them soldiers--have been killed in firefights that spread rapidly through the Palestinian-controlled territories.

The combat deepened fears here of a return to the full-scale confrontation that preceded the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

"This is a massacre," said Dr. Shawki Harb, director of a hospital in this West Bank city, as he struggled to handle a steady stream of Palestinian wounded. "We need a political decision to end the violence."

Israel declared a state of emergency in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, sending in troop reinforcements and deploying tanks and helicopters there for the first time since Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority assumed control of most of the area, as called for in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordecai ordered a complete closure of the territories, prohibiting all Palestinian residents from entering Israel.

The deteriorating situation led Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cut short a three-nation European tour and fly home Thursday for an emergency session of his security Cabinet.

After seven hours of talks, the security Cabinet issued a statement accusing the Palestinians of "incitement to violence."

U.S. officials here and in Washington launched extensive efforts Thursday to arrange a meeting between Netanyahu and Arafat to try to end the bloodshed.

"Basically, at this point, we're just trying to stop the shooting," U.S. Consul General Edward G. Abington said Thursday as he drove to Gaza to see the Palestinian leader.

An official in Arafat's office said later that Netanyahu, Arafat and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would meet today in Cairo, although Israel Radio reported that such a meeting was unlikely to take place so soon.

There were reports that Arafat was demanding that Israel close a new entrance to an archeological tunnel near Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem before any meeting could take place, according to U.S. officials in Washington.

The renewed violence underscored the fragility of the hard-won peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And it dramatized the extent to which relations between the two sides have deteriorated since the election in May of Netanyahu, the leader of the right-wing Likud Party.

Palestinians accuse Netanyahu of paying lip service to the peace process while his government enacts new, aggressive policies toward Palestinians in Jerusalem and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including stepped-up land confiscations and settlement activity.

The current crisis was touched off by the Israeli decision this week to complete excavation of the ancient tunnel alongside the Al Aqsa mosque compound, one of the holiest sites in Islam.

Palestinians' anger boiled over because they viewed the action as a provocative move by Israel to consolidate its claim to all of Jerusalem.

Palestinians hope one day to make the eastern section of Jerusalem, including the Old City and its Muslim shrines, the capital of an independent state.

Israeli officials--who on Thursday experienced one of their worst days for military casualties since the Palestinian uprising of 1987-1993--responded that the tunnel simply provided Arafat and Palestinian leaders with the chance to pressure Israel on the peace process.

"This explosion would have occurred also if there would have been a sudden gust of an eastern wind," Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy said from New York, where he is attending meetings at the United Nations.

The Palestinians, said Netanyahu spokesman David Bar-Illan, had "hitched a ride" on the tunnel issue.

"It seems to have been an opportunity they did not want to pass up," he said.

But what began with organized Palestinian protests escalated into stone-throwing, rioting and widespread shooting, with showdowns at dozens of points between Israelis and Palestinians.

For the second day, Palestinian police, according to numerous accounts, joined in the shooting, firing at Israeli troops operating checkpoints.

Many political observers here said the Palestinian leadership, which organized general strikes and protest marches over the last three days, lost control over the demonstrators and at least part of its 30,000-person police force.

Abington, the Jerusalem consul general who is the United States' main contact with Arafat, said the Palestinian leader has acknowledged that he is not fully in control of the security forces.

"I think he's trying his best, but the command and control functions for the Palestinian security forces is not as good as it obviously is for the Israelis," Abington said.

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