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Two Palestinians killed in Mideast violence
Palestinians say 1 dead man wielded a drill; Israel said he had a gun
RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- Two Palestinians were killed in separate incidents in the West Bank and Gaza on Saturday, marring a relatively calm day in a region that has been battered by more than two months of violence.
Israeli soldiers shot dead a Palestinian man near the West Bank town of Ramallah. The Israeli Army said it killed the man when he brandished a gun at Ayosh Junction. But the Palestinian Red Crescent Society said the man was a 26-year-old electrician holding a drill while working at the window of a damaged building.
Another Palestinian man was killed in Gaza, but details of his death are unclear.
While clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians appear to be declining in recent weeks, the death toll continues to mount. The death toll in nine weeks of Mideast violence now stands at almost 300, most of them Palestinians.
On Friday, four Palestinians died -- three in battles with Israeli soldiers and a fourth of wounds suffered in a clash two days earlier. Funerals for all four were planned for Saturday in Gaza and the West Bank.
Friday's clashes boiled to the surface after Islamic prayers attended by thousands of Muslims in Jerusalem's Old City. Several thousand Palestinians were unable to travel to Jerusalem to worship at Al Aqsa mosque because of Israeli travel restrictions. Some of those Muslims faced off against Israeli soldiers along the roads to Jerusalem.
At the disputed religious site in Jerusalem -- the Muslims call it Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, while the Jews know it as the Temple Mount, site of the ancient Jewish Temples -- the Israelis lifted age restrictions that had kept out Palestinians younger than 45.
Barak preparing for elections
The continued violence in the Mideast formed in unsettling backdrop to the preparations for Israeli elections. Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his opponents agreed earlier this week to move toward early elections, probably in April or May.
Barak vowed to keep searching for a solution to the Mideast deadlock and secure a peace deal with the Palestinians.
But Barak favored an interim agreement that would leave out particularly contentious issues such as the final status of Jerusalem and its sacred shrines.
The Palestinians, however, say they have signed enough interim agreements since the Oslo accords were signed in 1993, and insist on a final agreement including all issues.
Both sides blame the other for the current wave of violence, and both insist the other is capable of stopping it.
"Firing on Israeli soldiers continues," Israeli army chief of staff Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz said on Israel's Channel Two television. There is a reduction but there is no change" in the situation.
The Palestinians said it was Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories that fueled the fighting, and vowed to continue to defend themselves.
"Despite the heavy human and material losses and the siege and the return to the policy of collective punishment, our Palestinian people are growing more determined to continue their steadfastness in the face of the Israeli aggression," the Palestinian Authority cabinet said in a statement issued after its weekly meeting on Friday.
U.S. urges cooperation with fact-finders
On Friday night, U.S. President Bill Clinton -- who has made no secret of his desire to conclude an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before he leaves office in less than two months, telephoned Barak and urged him to move ahead with a fact-finding committee charged with determining the causes of the current flare-up.
The five-member committee, led by former Sen. George Mitchell, and including diplomats from the United States, the European Union, Turkey and Norway, met separately with Israeli and Palestinian representatives in New York City this week.
Israeli officials told the Clinton administration last week it would be difficult for the committee to begin its work while the violence continued on the ground.
Asked about Israel's position about the committee, National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley said only that there are "questions that need to be resolved" between the committee and the two sides.
Crowley said the fact-finding committee was a major part of the 45-minute discussion between Clinton and Barak, their first conversation since they met at the White House before Clinton departed for Hawaii, Brunei and Vietnam earlier this month.
Also Friday afternoon, Samuel Berger, the president's national security adviser, met for about an hour with Yossi Beilin, Israel's justice minister. Earlier, Beilin met with U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering and Dennis Ross, U.S. Middle East peace envoy.
Three Palestinians killed in Friday's violence
Knesset, The Israeli Parliament
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