Israeli soldier, two gunmen reported killed in clash along border with Jordan |

Israeli soldier, two gunmen reported killed in clash along border with Jordan

MARK LAVIE, Associated Press Writer

JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli soldier and two gunmen died Tuesday in a clash on farm land leased to Israel by Jordan. The bloodshed on a usually peaceful border was the worst incident on a dreary Christmas in the Holy Land that saw more confrontation than celebration.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat spent the day in his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah, trapped by a travel ban imposed by Israel to pressure him to arrest the assassins of an Israeli Cabinet minister. Israel faced nearly universal criticism for its move.

Elsewhere, a top Palestinian official said discussions were continuing with Israel on stopping 15 months of fighting, and Israel said it would lift a closure on the West Bank town of Jericho. But Israeli troops entered another town and arrested seven Palestinians.

The violence on the Israel-Jordan border was a rarity. Though Jordan’s population is heavily Palestinian, there have been few incidents during the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Just after daybreak, gunmen in Jordan fired at an Israeli border patrol near an area leased from Jordan by Israeli farmers, wounding two Israeli soldiers, the Israeli military said.

Israel rushed in reinforcements, and a gunbattle resulted in one Israeli soldier being killed and two wounded. Later, Israeli soldiers found the bodies of two armed assailants, the Israeli military said. It was unclear who they were.

Israeli infantrymen, armored vehicles and helicopters took part in the fight, which Israel’s military said was coordinated with the Jordanian government.

In Jordan, government spokesman Saleh Qallab confirmed that the shooting took place at 6:45 a.m. He said it occurred inside Israeli territory.

The only major incident on the Jordanian border in recent years was in 1997, when a deranged Jordanian soldier fired at Israeli schoolgirls visiting “Peace Island” in a jointly controlled area. Seven girls were killed.

Later Tuesday, Israel’s Defense Ministry said it was lifting a blockade around Jericho, a Palestinian town in the Jordan River Valley that is isolated from other Palestinian centers and is a relatively peaceful area.

Israeli troops have been holding Palestinian towns in a chokehold throughout the uprising, tightening it earlier this month after a series of Palestinian suicide attacks on Israelis. The restrictions prevent Palestinians from traveling between their autonomous zones and have crippled the Palestinian economy.

Israel has offered to lift the restrictions in places where Palestinians are prepared to control violent groups.

On Tuesday evening, Israeli soldiers barred journalists from covering a demonstration by Palestinians and some supporters from abroad who were singing Christmas carols while sitting on the road at the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The Foreign Press Association protested the closure, which was lifted after the demonstration.

Before daybreak, Israeli tanks and soldiers entered the West Bank town of Tamoun and arrested seven suspected members of the militant group Hamas, which has taken responsibility for many suicide bombings inside Israel. Palestinian security officials said the Israelis fired tank shells during the three-hour incursion; the Israeli military denied that.

The Palestinian Authority’s planning minister, Nabil Shaath, said both sides were continuing contacts aimed at producing an agreement to end the fighting.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office said the discussions between Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia were aimed at a truce, not a peace accord. Sharon has insisted there can be no peace talks until all violence stops.

However, Palestinian officials said the two sides were discussing a plan that would create a Palestinian state in areas now under Palestinian control, with difficult issues like the future status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and final borders to be tackled later.

Sharon initially dismissed the reports as baseless but issued a statement Monday confirming that talks were trying to halt violence and make diplomatic progress.

Arafat, meanwhile, remained at his Ramallah headquarters, where he has been stuck since Dec. 3, when Israel destroyed his helicopters in an air raid retaliating for Palestinian suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa that killed 26 people along with the three bombers.

Israel said Arafat, who was used to making frequent trips abroad, would have to stay in the town until Palestinian police arrested the killers of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, gunned down Oct. 17.

Arafat’s predicament received worldwide attention. Criticism came from Palestinians, the European Union, the Vatican, six Christian denominations represented in the Holy Land and even several Israeli Cabinet ministers and Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who is a Sharon ally. Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau said Tuesday it was “unwise” to take a step that appeared to limit religious freedom.

The government insisted that freedom of religion was not at issue, since Arafat is a Muslim. Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, a member of Sharon’s Likud Party, said allowing Arafat to attend the Christmas celebrations would have been an unwarranted boost to his prestige.

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