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Israelis celebrate independence, Palestinians mourn deaths

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israelis lit bonfires and fireworks on Thursday, marking the 53rd anniversary of the founding of Israel.

Israel's Independence Day began at sundown on Wednesday, after a day of mourning for Israeli soldiers who have died since the state was created.

With fireworks sparkling and outdoor concerts ringing through the night air, Israeli troops kept the West Bank and Gaza sealed off until Friday in an effort to prevent Palestinian attacks.

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CNN's Mike Hanna has more on Israel's pause for reflection

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graphic Recent acts of violence in the Middle East:
 • Bombings
 • Activist deaths
 

Israel declared itself an independent state in May 1948, and Palestinians fled their homes in what became Israeli territory, launching a conflict that has continued for more than half a century.

While the celebrations continued on Thursday, Palestinians near Rafah in Gaza gathered for the funeral of four of their own, who died when a bomb exploded a day earlier.

A Palestinian police commander blamed the deaths on 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.

Peres coming to Washington

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.

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 is not likely to take place for at least several months. Among those who may be considered for the job are Richard Haass, the director of the State Department Bureau of Policy Planning, the officials said.



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RELATED SITES:
Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Israeli Prime Minister's Office
Knesset, Israeli Parliament
Israel Defense Forces
Permanent Mission of Israel to the U.N.
Palestinian National Authority
Palestinian Red Crescent
Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the U.N.
U.S. State Department, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs
U.N. Question of Palestine home page
The E.U.'s Middle East Policy

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