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Clashes Mark Palestinian Independence Day

Mideast: Commemoration of Arafat's 1988 declaration comes amid a funeral for a slain youth. The escalating daily cycle of firefights claims 8 more lives.


RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinian teenagers greeted the rat-a-tat-tat of Israel's arsenal with excited grins as they sprinted for cover behind walls and cars.

They had waited impatiently for the volley of gunfire Wednesday, watching dozens of their cohorts taunt the soldiers by throwing stones and occasionally firing Kalashnikovs despite what they claimed were orders from Palestinian officials to stop shooting.

It seemed an inevitable conclusion to Independence Day celebrations in a city where school-age youths spend their afternoons constructing crude slingshots instead of studying in the classroom. Unlike the national holiday celebrated by Americans, the "revolution" that Palestinians commemorated Wednesday in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is far from over, an escalating daily cycle of firefights leading to funerals--leading, in turn, to more firefights.

The 12th anniversary of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's symbolic declaration of independence proved no exception. At least eight more Palestinians were reported killed in clashes with Israeli forces throughout the West Bank and Gaza, raising the death toll during the seven-week intifada to about 220, all but 24 of them Arabs. Early today, Israel launched a series of attacks on Arafat's Fatah political faction.

Despite the cost, top Fatah leaders said Wednesday that Palestinians will step up their attacks on Israeli settlers and troops.

"We hope [to achieve] liberation," said Marwan Barghouti, a senior Fatah military leader. "This is the day to start the population [on the road] to sovereignty and to continue this intifada."

Palestinians had believed that the landmark Oslo peace process launched in 1993 with Israel would bring them independence by now. Instead, they have what they consider the mere crumbs of a sovereign state, subjected still to considerable Israeli military control, fragmented by the presence of scores of Jewish settlements, and incapable of sustaining an economy.

Explosive frustration over the lack of independence lies at the heart of the ongoing strife. Arafat has repeatedly been forced to put off declaring an independent state, with Wednesday being the latest missed deadline.

In Ramallah, independence was marked with a funeral as thousands of residents gathered to bury a 14-year-old stone-thrower.

"With blood, we are going to win," Abu Ali Mustafa, secretary-general of the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said as he accompanied the funeral march.

Saber Barash, an eighth-grader, was shot and killed Tuesday. His flag-draped body was paraded through the city while mourners sang his praises in rhythmic chants and vowed to continue his fight.

Posters with his picture were visible all over the city, many of them pasted over worn posters of other children killed by Israeli soldiers in the past two months.

Such deaths, while terrible, serve a purpose, said Amin Abdullah, a former Yucca Valley resident who returned to the West Bank 2 1/2 years ago. They strengthen Palestinian resolve to push the Israelis out, he said.

"For us, this is like the American Revolution, when they yearned to be free of the British," Abdullah said. "They were fighting for a just cause, and we are fighting for a just cause."

With schools closed Wednesday for Independence Day, young Palestinian revelers poured into the streets, waving red-green-and-black Palestinian flags. By lunchtime, hundreds had gathered at Ramallah's edge, munching on sesame-seed buns and falafel bought from nearby street vendors while waiting for the clashes to begin.

They weren't disappointed.

At one point, Israeli forces from Central Command headquarters shelled an apparently vacant apartment building that several Palestinian gunmen had fired from moments earlier. The explosion sent demonstrators and spectators fleeing.

Later, before dawn today, Israel attacked four Fatah targets. The army said it hit Fatah headquarters in the West Bank towns of Salfit, Tulkarm and Hebron, as well as an armory in Jericho.

Elsewhere Wednesday, fierce clashes left eight Palestinians dead in six towns. And gunfire could be heard well into the evening in Jerusalem as Palestinian gunmen in the village of Beit Jala near Bethlehem pumped round after round into the Jewish community of Gilo south of Jerusalem and Israeli forces retaliated. A German doctor who was helping injured Palestinians in Beit Jala was killed, Israel Radio said.

Israeli special forces, meanwhile, arrested 15 Palestinians in secret operations overnight Tuesday, officials said. The men are suspected in various attacks, including possibly the ambush shooting of a female Jewish settler Monday.

Israel has said that it will not resume peace negotiations until the violence stops.

"We are in the middle of a march of folly, and this tragic situation needs to be brought to an end," Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said.

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