Israel alert on independence day
JERUSALEM -- Israeli security forces have stepped up patrols as the country marks independence day.
The West Bank and Gaza have been sealed off until Friday in an effort to prevent Palestinian attacks.
Clashes continued in the West Bank overnight Wednesday as Israeli troops opened fire on the town of Bate Jala and Palestinians opened fire on the Jewish settlement of Gilo.
The clashes came as four Palestinian policemen were killed and another four injured in an attack near Rafah in southern Gaza on Wednesday, the Palestine Red Crescent Society said.
It was unclear who planted the bomb but a Palestinian police commander blamed Palestinians working for the Israeli intelligence service.
A spokesman for the Palestinian Popular Resistance Group, however, said Israeli forces ambushed three of its members as they were about to carry out a bomb attack.
The Israeli army said it knew nothing about the incident.
The bombing occurred as a U.S. administration official expressed guarded optimism that the Israelis and Palestinians could be "beginning to turn a corner" in ending their seven months of violent clashes.
Officials said the Bush administration is "heavily engaged" in mediating between the two sides.
As evidence of progress, officials pointed to statements made by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Monday in which he clearly spoke out against all attacks against Israelis and Palestinians. The United States has been urging Arafat to make such a statement for months.
In addition, the official said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was trying to provide the Palestinians some "breathing space" by allowing thousands of Palestinians to return to work in Israel.
Next week, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres plans to travel to Washington to meet with the Bush administration. U.S. officials said the purpose of Peres' trip was to discuss an Egyptian-Jordanian plan to try to end the violence.
U.S. officials told CNN that talk of appointing a Middle East envoy is speculation. They said such a move was not likely to take place for at least several months. Among those being considered for the job are Richard Haass, the director of the State Department Bureau of Policy Planning.
Israel seals off Gaza, West Bank until Friday
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