Fresh violence flared in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Friday as Israel prepared its reponse to an Egyptian-Jordanian peace initiative that has drawn cautious U.S. interest and Russian praise.
Israeli troops wounded seven Palestinian protesters near the West Bank city of Ramallah, witnesses and medical officials said. One of four hit by live bullets was in critical condition.
Witnesses said a gunbattle erupted after the clashes with Palestinian demonstrators. Troops used heavy machineguns against gunmen shooting from buildings on the edge of Ramallah.
Soldiers firing rubber-coated metal bullets wounded four more Palestinian stonethrowers near the town of Qalqilya.
In the Gaza Strip, Palestinians detonated a roadside bomb at the entrance of a Jewish settlement, lightly wounding an Israeli soldier and a Jewish settler, the Israeli army said.
The violence erupted despite more security talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials aimed at restoring calm after seven months of bloodshed in which at least 393 Palestinians, 13 Israeli Arabs and 74 Israelis have been killed.
The Israeli Defence Ministry announced that it would ease an onerous closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by allowing another 11,000 Palestinians to return to work in Israel.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon discussed the Egyptian-Jordanian plan with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who is due to travel to Cairo and Amman on Sunday to lay out Israel’s objections.
A statement from Sharon’s office said later that the talks with Egypt and Jordan would aim at “bringing about a cessation of terror and violence and as such creating the necessary groundwork for the renewal of political negotiations”.
In Amman, a senior Jordanian official said Israel’s response to the proposal would “test the seriousness” of its intentions.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, due to meet Peres in Washington next week, said on Thursday the Egyptian Jordanian plan could produce progress. “There may be something that comes out of that, with a basis to move forward,” he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, seeking to intensify Moscow’s role in Middle East diplomacy, on Friday praised the initiative as “movement in the right direction”.