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Mideast peace process limps along, shadowed by violence
Palestinian policeman latest death in Israeli-Palestinian conflict
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Both sides in the Middle East peace process are continuing their perusal of proposals that U.S. President Bill Clinton hopes could lead the way to an agreement in the troubled region.
The uncertainty over the future of the plan -- which is probably Clinton's last hope of securing a deal before he leaves office -- is being shadowed by violence which claimed more lives on Friday.
A Palestinian policeman was killed near the Erez crossing checkpoint between Israel and Gaza, Palestinian police said, a day after two Israelis were killed by a bomb near another crossing point.
The Israeli military said that its forces fired a single tank shell after Palestinians fired on them as they began to plow up trees near a police post. The Israelis say Palestinian snipers use foliage as cover when they attack Israelis.
A spokesman for the Palestinian Security Force said the policeman, Mahmoud Naseer, was killed in northern Gaza and the attack came without warning.
The latest death brought the toll for three months of violence up to 376 -- 322 Palestinians, according to the Palestine Red Crescent Society, and 41 Israeli Jews and 13 Israeli Arabs, according to the Israel Defense Forces -- and clouded the ongoing Mideast peace process.
The militant group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility Friday for a bomb blast on Thursday near the Sufa crossing checkpoint that killed an Israeli soldier and a border policeman.
The IDF said the Israeli team had stopped to defuse a bomb found alongside the road near Sufa. The team had just completed the task when a second bomb planted nearby exploded. The border policeman died immediately and the soldier died later of his wounds.
Another policeman and a soldier were lightly wounded.
In the second bombing incident, two pipe bombs exploded in a Tel Aviv city bus around midday on Thursday, injuring 14 people.
Israelis arrest 'hostile' suspects
Israel tightened security around Jerusalem's Old City and the Palestinian territories on Friday as Muslims gathered at Al-Aqsa mosque for noon prayers and militant Islamic groups urged observance of another "day of rage."
Calls for days of rage against Israel have been common since clashes started September 28, but there was no major violence in Jerusalem after prayers on Friday. Israel had lifted its frequently imposed age restrictions for entrance into the mosque compound and permitted all Jerusalem residents to enter.
Several Palestinians were wounded in the West Bank, however, when a minor clash erupted between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers in Ramallah.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak ordered a "full closure" of the Palestinian territories on Thursday in response to the bombing attacks. Barak's order clamped restrictions on Palestinians traveling to, from and throughout Gaza and the West Bank.
Israel Defense Forces also said special units in the West Bank had arrested 15 Palestinians suspected of hostile activities. The IDF gave no further details on the arrests, except to say that eight were arrested overnight and seven a day earlier.
Clinton proposals on the table
Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat were studying proposals offered by U.S. President Bill Clinton to end both a three-month flare-up of violence that has left over 370 people dead -- 334 Palestinians or Israeli Arabs, and the rest Israeli Jews -- and the larger five-decade old conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Details of Clinton's proposals, given to Israeli and Palestinian negotiators a week ago in Washington, were not available, but sources said they included compromises on the key issues keeping the two sides apart. Of keen interest were the final status of Jerusalem and the fate of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who lost their homes when the state of Israel was formed in 1948.
Both sides express reservations about the proposals, which Clinton hoped would be a basis for a final agreement. But Israel said it was willing to accept the proposals provided the Palestinians did as well.
The Palestinians, however, said the proposals were too vague and requested clarification from both the Americans and Israelis.
Hasan Abdel Rahman, the Palestinian Authority representative to Washington, told CNN the Clinton proposal is "ambiguous," but the Palestinian response to the proposal "indicates our seriousness."
"We are not looking for a pretext to say no. We are looking for a reason to proceed," he said. "We are not in a hurry to say no, but we can't say yes yet. This should be a final, permanent deal we can live with and it has to be very clear."
In an interview on Israel's Channel Two television, Barak tried to allay fears of many Israelis that he is ready to cede the Temple Mount, Judaism's holiest site, to Palestinians.
"The government under my authority will not accept any agreement in any form that will recognize ... the right of return. Period ... I do not intend to sign any document that will transfer sovereignty over the Temple Mount to Palestinians," Barak said.
Clinton, with three weeks remaining in his presidency, said that the time to end the process was at hand.
They understand exactly what I mean," he said on Thursday. "Both sides know exactly what I mean, and they know exactly what they still have to do, and that's enough right now."
Barak loses ground in election campaign
In Israel, Clinton's proposals had little support beyond Barak's immediate backers. A Gallup poll published in Israel's daily Maariv newspaper said that 56 percent of the people would oppose the plan. That spelled trouble for Barak's campaign to win re-election to the premiership on February 6.
Barak trails opposition leader Ariel Sharon of the Likud party 45 percent to 24 percent in Maariv's poll. Another poll, conducted by the Dahaf polling agency for the Yediot Ahronot daily, gave 48 percent of the vote to Sharon and 35 percent to Barak.
CNN Jerusalem Bureau Chief Mike Hanna contributed to this report.
Clinton: 'It's time to close' Mideast deal
Israel Defense Forces (in Hebrew and English)
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