Israeli-Palestinian clashes intensify
More than 30 wounded in West Bank
JERUSALEM -- In the worst day of Israeli-Palestinian fighting since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took office, 34 Palestinians were wounded in clashes with Israeli soldiers Friday near the West Bank town of Ramallah, the Palestine Red Crescent Society said.
Three were critically wounded, according to hospital officials.
The Palestinians were wounded as they tried to reopen a road near Ramallah where the Israeli army had dug trenches. The trenches, which isolated villages, was part of what Israelis call security operations but Palestinians regard as a collective punishment.
Also Friday, in the West Bank town of Tulkarem more than 15,000 Palestinians demonstrated in the streets, calling for more suicide attacks against Israeli targets.
They marched to a nearby refugee camp, the home of Ahmed Aliyan, who killed himself and three Israelis when he detonated a bomb in the Israeli town of Netanya on Sunday.
"The suicide operations will continue," a banner read. The protest was organized by the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas, which threatened to unleash 10 suicide bombers after Sharon took power.
Sniper attack on Israeli post
The intensified fighting came just two days after Sharon -- head of the Likud party -- was sworn in as the new Israeli leader. Many Palestinians regard Sharon and Likud as hawkish toward the Palestinian peace process.
Sharon, 73, took over as prime minister from Ehud Barak, whom he decisively defeated in an election held a month ago. The centerpiece of Sharon's campaign was a promise to resume peacemaking after stamping out violence.
Sharon heads an eight-party coalition government -- including Barak's Labor Party, his own Likud movement and the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party.
Sharon sends letter to Arafat
As one of his first acts in office, Sharon wrote to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat this week to discuss a halt to the bloodshed and pave the way for a possible renewal of peace talks, a Sharon aide said.
The aide said Israel's new leader was willing to meet Arafat in person to discuss ending violence but any peace negotiations could only take place after an extended lull in fighting.
Sharon sent Arafat the letter Thursday night, saying he hoped for "personal contacts" to renew peacemaking. In more than five months of fighting, 380 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Palestine Red Crescent Society. Israel Defense Forces says 65 Israeli Jews and 13 Israeli Arabs have been killed in the clashes.
"I hope that we will find a way to conduct personal contacts already in the near future in order to put an end to the cycle of bloodshed, hatred and incitement, and to renew security and economic cooperation on the way toward achieving true peace," Sharon's office quoted him as saying in the letter.
Sharon's spokesman made clear there was no change in the Israeli leader's policy that violence must stop before peace negotiations start.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Nabil Sha'ath welcomed Sharon's letter but said Palestinians were waiting to see him take a first step by ending Israel's cutting off of the West Bank.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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