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U.S. officials make new push for Mideast peace talks
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In a new push to restart the Mideast peace process, U.S. State Department officials are trying to arrange meetings next week with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.
Officials are "exploring the possibility of direct discussions with both sides in Washington," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Friday.
He did not say whether the talks would be tri-party discussions, nor whether U.S. President Bill Clinton would participate. Clinton has said he is willing to do what he can for the peace process before his presidency ends in January.
Boucher said Palestinian officials, including leader Yasser Arafat, indicated their desire to "stabilize the situation and find a way back to the peacemaking" during a meeting this week with U.S. Mideast envoy Dennis Ross.
Ross, Boucher said, "also found clear agreement that the only way to end this conflict is through a negotiated settlement."
Earlier Friday, six more Palestinians were killed in the West Bank and Gaza, raising to more than 350 the number of people who have died in the violence that erupted between the Israelis and Palestinians on September 28. More than 300 of those killed were Palestinians; 38 were Israeli Jews, and 13 Israeli Arabs.
The Israelis say their policy is to shoot only when shot at. But the army said it has in recent days sought out Palestinians believed to have been involved in agressions against Israelis. The Palestinians call such actions "assassinations."
The Israeli army said that two of those killed Friday -- one near Nablus in the West Bank and one at Erez Crossing in Gaza -- were Palestinians intending to carry out attacks against Israelis. The army said it found a bomb on the body of the man killed in Gaza.
Palestinian authorities said that three others were killed near the West Bank village of Burin, but the Israelis said they were not involved in that incident.
The sixth Palestinian died in a clash near Ramallah.
Arafat, Ben-Ami meet
Friday's rise in the death toll comes despite a late-night meeting in Gaza between Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami.
The two men talked for four hours Thursday night, searching for the common ground that would bring the adversaries back to the table for another shot at ending the decades-old conflict.
Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, who participated in the session, was cautious about touting any progress made at the meeting.
"There are contacts, and through these contacts we want to be assured that there will be new ideas which will guarantee the success of the negotiations if they are resumed," said Rabbo.
"But if we will face the same ideas that we have discussed in Camp David and that led to the failure of that summit, we think there is no need to resume the negotiations and to face a deadlock once again," Rabbo said.
Rabbo cautioned that restarting the negotiations without substantial change would "worsen the situation on the ground."
Gilead Sher, a top Barak aide who attended the session between Ben-Ami and Arafat, repeated Israeli assertions that only an end to the current violence could bring about a resumption of the negotiations.
"We are not looking for new ideas," Sher told CNN. "We are looking for a reduction of the violence, the incitement and the terrorism -- and only afterwards can we resume the peace talks."
"We look for a better effort on the side of the Palestinian Authority to stop the clashes," Sher said.
Meanwhile, Barak, facing an election that could take place as early as February 6, met with European Union President Hubert Vedrine, the French foreign minister.
"I have the sense that something has begun to move again on the political level, the diplomatic level or the substantive level. Things are slowly becoming possible again," Vedrine told reporters in Tel Aviv.
Vedrine met with Arafat in Gaza and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on Friday.
Violence in Jerusalem
Meanwhile, violence erupted in Jerusalem after thousands of Muslims were denied access to Al Aqsa mosque. They prayed in the streets outside Jerusalem's walled Old City before clashing with Israeli security forces who had blocked their entry to the mosque.
Israeli authorities barred Jerusalem residents under 35 from the mosque, but for the first time since the uprising began allowing a limited number of West Bank residents under age 45 to pray at the site.
Those kept outside protested. The Palestinians threw a barrage of stones at the Israelis, who responded with rubber-coated steel bullets and stun grenades. Some of the Israeli forces were on horseback.
Two Israeli policemen and dozens of Palestinians were reported injured in the conflict.
The scene was repeated inside the Old City, where Israel enforced an age and residency requirement to enter the mosque at Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary.
The Muslims share the site -- the third holiest in the world of Islam -- with Jewish worshippers, who call the hilltop location the Temple Mount, once home to the ancient Jewish temple.
A portion of a wall, now called the Western Wall, is all that remains of the structure originally built by biblical King Solomon and finally destroyed almost 2,000 years ago.
CNN Correspondent Jerrold Kessel and CNN State Department Producer Elise Labott contributed to this report.
Israeli foreign minister, Arafat meet in Gaza
U.S. State Department
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