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Ramallah clash erupts into gun battle
CNN Correspondents Jerrold Kessel and Fionnuala Sweeney contributed to this report
RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- A clash fought with rough-hewn stones and acrid tear gas escalated to a full-fledged gun battle in Ramallah, West Bank, on Friday, as Palestinians and Israeli soldiers entered a fifth week of bitter, ugly conflict.
At least 145 people, almost all Palestinians or Israeli Arabs, have been killed in the fighting, which began after a visit to a disputed east Jerusalem shrine by a right-wing Israeli politician on September 28.
The fighting in Ramallah on Friday began at the end of the Muslim noon prayers when thousands of Palestinians marched to the edge of town to confront Israeli soldiers stationed there. Several Israeli jeeps pulled into place to block the road, and the confrontation began as it has almost daily with rock- and firebomb-throwing Palestinians facing off against Israelis armed with rubber-coated steel bullets and tear gas canisters.
Late in the day, both sides opened fire with live ammunition. At least one Palestinian was killed and 35 people were injured. Three other Palestinians died in clashes elsewhere, earlier on Friday.
Israeli commander: 'We do not have any other choice'
The fighting in Ramallah eased as sundown approached, but an angry Col. Gal Hirsch, commander of the Israeli forces at the scene, told CNN's Jerrold Kessel that the Israelis only opened fire when the Palestinians began shooting at them, and they would "never use live ammunition unless we have no other choice."
"Palestinians are now using machine guns against us," Hirsch said. "It is just fairy tales that we are shooting children. We are shooting well-armed Palestinians who are shooting at our settlements and even our ambulances."
"We will kill anyone who will open fire against us," he added. "We do not have any other choice."
Hirsch accused Palestinian gunmen of shooting from behind crowds of their own people, using civilians --including children -- as shields.
"To all the demonstrators, although they use firebombs and stones, we use only nonlethal weapons," he said. "Those stones are killing people. When we are shooting back, no one should be surprised of the results."
Palestinians: Israelis fired first
But Mustafa Barghouti of Palestinian Medical Relief said it was the Israelis, and not the Palestinians, who fired first.
"What they've done today is a civilian demonstration," he said. "I was with the people. It was 10,000 people who marched in a civil way and then as soon as they arrived there, they were confronted by Israeli fire."
"These are civilians as you can see," he added. "No Palestinian is shooting at the Israelis. The most they can use is stones, and the Israelis are shooting at them with live ammunition."
Barghouti also accused the Israelis of shooting to kill by aiming for Palestinians' heads, an allegation Hirsch flatly denied.
"The only Palestinians that got live bullets in their heads were Palestinians who opened sniper fire against us," he said.
Still, Barghouti pointed to the discrepancy between Israeli and Palestinian casualties in the conflict -- at least 145 dead, all but a handful Palestinians or Israeli Arabs -- to dispute the Israeli contention that Palestinians were using live ammunition against them.
"If that were the case," Barghouti said, "we would be seeing far more Israeli casualties."
Jerusalem largely quiet
More clashes erupted in other areas -- two Palestinians died in the fighting in Tulkarem and Qalqilya, and a third in Gaza, Palestinian hospital officials said.
Some clashes were reported in Jerusalem, but 7,000 worshippers dispersed quietly from the site that Muslims call Haram as-Sharif -- and Jews call Temple Mount -- under the warily watchful eyes of Israeli soldiers braced for the possibility of stone-throwing attacks or the more frightening specter of a suicide bomber.
On Thursday, a suicide bomber from the militant Islamic Jihad rattled the Israelis. A 24-year-old Palestinian pedaled a bomb-laden bicycle to an army post in Gaza, where he rammed a wall and exploded.
The bomber died and an Israeli soldier was wounded, but the attack renewed haunting memories of past suicide bomb attacks on Israeli targets that killed dozens of civilians.
And Islamic Jihad, a group committed to the creation of a Palestinian state and the destruction of Israel, pledged more such attacks.
Israel announces arrest in soldiers' deaths
Despite the heightened security around the mosques at Haram as-Sharif on Friday, the Israelis eased some restrictions, lowering the minimum age of the men they were allowing to enter the site from 40 to 35.
But restrictions on travel between towns and villages in the West Bank were still in effect, leaving many Palestinians unable to come to Jerusalem. Security in those other towns --such as Ramallah, where some of the most bitter fighting has taken place -- was tight as well.
Travel between Palestinian towns has been restricted since October 12, when a Palestinian mob beat and stabbed to death two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah and Israel retaliated with rocket attacks.
Shin Bet, Israel's security agency, formally announced on Thursday that one man -- seen holding up his blood-covered hands in television pictures after the killings of the soldiers -- was in custody.
Additionally, the Israeli Justice Ministry said that six policemen had been suspended pending an investigation into charges that they beat the suspect while transferring him from jail to an interrogation facility.
Unconfirmed reports on October 18 indicated that an Israeli raid into Ramallah had netted eight Palestinians suspected of participating in the killings.
Israeli officials said the two soldiers inadvertently drove into a Palestinian-controlled area before they were killed; Palestinians said the pair were on an undercover mission.
Militant group claims responsibility for Gaza suicide bombing
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