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Heavy Israeli-Palestinian gunbattles flare near Bethlehem

funeral
Palestinian children on the streets of Bethlehem on Monday sift through debris from Israeli-Palestinian clashes  

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Fierce Israeli-Palestinian gunbattles raged overnight near the West Bank town of Bethlehem, according to Israeli and Palestinian sources, and as many as 35 people were reported injured.

Intense fighting erupted at a Jewish shrine called Rachel's Tomb near Bethlehem, where Jewish tradition says the biblical matriarch was buried.

In response to Israeli-Palestinian gunbattles at the shrine, Israeli helicopter gunships fired two missiles at a building near the Aida refugee camp outside Bethlehem, according to Israel Defense Forces. The IDF said the building was being used as a hideout for Palestinians who they said attacked the shrine. Five people were injured in the attack.

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Rachel's Tomb, which is considered holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians, has been a frequent flashpoint for violent Israeli-Palestinian clashes since October. The tomb is known in Arabic as Masjid Bilal, and is adjacent to a Muslim cemetery..

Another gunfight lasting several hours broke out Sunday night outside the village of Hussan, near Bethlehem. IDF said the shooting started after Jewish settlers were attacked by Palestinian rioters throwing rocks and firebombs.

But Palestinians said the fighting started after Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers attacked Muslim worshippers who were on their way to Ramadan prayers, an allegation IDF strongly denied.

According to IDF, an Israeli woman was slightly injured during the violence by rocks that were thrown at her vehicle.

Thirty Palestinians were injured in the Hussan clash, according to Palestinian sources.

Fighting also broke out overnight around the Jewish settlement of Psagot, near the West Bank town of Ramallah, and another firefight occurred in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. There were no reports of casualties.

Onlookers on Monday survey damage of a building attacked by Israeli helicopters overnight outside Bethlehem  

Each side blames the other for nine weeks of virtually continuous Israeli-Palestinian fighting that has left more than 300 people dead, a large majority of them Palestinians.

Meanwhile in Gaza, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat carried a holstered gun in hand on Monday and said it was in reaction to the closing of a road by Jewish settlers, which prevented him from getting home.

It was the first time Arafat has carried a weapon in public since he returned from exile in 1994.

Returning from a trip to Arab countries, Arafat was held up near Gaza International Airport because Jewish settlers had blocked the main road into Gaza City, protesting a decision by the Israeli military to allow Palestinian traffic there.

"The most important thing is that right now they were closing Salah Edin Road and that is why I am carrying this," Arafat told reporters, referring to the weapon.

Arafat appeared to be carrying the weapon in a symbolic gesture, and there were no indications that he intended to use it.

Amid the fighting, Israelis have begun to turn their attention to early elections, expected to be held this spring.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is hanging his hopes for re-election on a bid to clinch a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Barak is being politically squeezed on all sides. He faces early elections he had hoped to avoid, growing public dismay over his failure to halt the violence, and a potential revolt from within his own party.

A senior aide to Barak said on Sunday that Israel would cooperate fully with a U.S.-led international commission of inquiry into the causes of, and possible solutions to, the violence. The five-member commission has met with Israeli and Palestinian representatives and is expected to visit the Mideast soon.

CNN Correspondent Jerrold Kessel contributed to this report.



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RELATED SITES:
Knesset, The Israeli Parliament
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Israel Defense Forces Homepage
Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Palestinian National Authority

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