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Mortars injure five Jewish settlers

Israeli soldiers
Israeli soldiers observe a Palestinian refugee camp  

GAZA CITY (CNN) -- Mortar attacks on Jewish settlements in Gaza have left five settlers injured, one seriously, the Israeli army has said.

The raids targeted the Netzer Hazani settlement in southern Gaza Saturday, the army added.

One of the five mortars fell near a youth center injuring youngsters with shrapnel.

A spokesman for the Israeli army, Lieutenant Colonel Olivier Rafowicz, said that Saturday's shelling was the "gravest incident" involving mortar shells on an Israeli community since the latest intifada broke out seven months ago.

Further attacks took place Friday at Kfar Darom and Nitzanit settlements in Gaza, the Israeli army said.

Three mortar shells were fired in Friday's attacks but no injuries or damage were sustained, the Israeli army added.

Palestinian doctors said two Palestinians had been injured when soldiers near Kfar Darom returned fire.

Heavy exchanges of gunfire also occurred between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers near the West Bank town of Ramallah Friday.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said at least 16 Palestinians were injured in that fighting.

The Israeli army did not immediately respond to Saturday's shelling but Palestinian officials said the main north-south road had been closed to Palestinians in Gaza. The Israeli army said it had been closed for an hour.

Palestinian security officials also said the Israeli army had bulldozed Palestinians orchards in other areas of central Gaza, but the Israeli army did not comment on the allegations.

In a separate incident Saturday a Palestinian was arrested after stabbing and slightly injuring a Romanian laborer near Jerusalem, believing him to be an Israeli, police said.

Peace talks

The violence comes despite plans for peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian field commanders Sunday.

The meeting will be the first to be held in the Israeli-Palestinian District Co-ordination Offices, since the intifada began, said Ribhi Arafat, head of the Palestinian section of the offices in the West Bank.

Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror was pessimistic about the talks. He said: "No one can say that they will be useful but we have to try."

Meanwhile, the Palestinian cabinet has accused Israel of not doing enough to help ease tension in the region.

At its weekly meeting, the cabinet said Israel was increasing its aggression against Palestinians, despite joint security meetings.

The violence comes on the eve of Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres' visit to Egypt and Jordan for talks with Arab leaders on a proposal to end the violence.

Palestinian ministers called on Israel to accept a joint Egyptian-Jordanian peace plan -- without changes.

However, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has insisted the plan needs, what he calls, substantial changes.

Some Israeli cabinet ministers have said the plan fails to insist that Palestinians halt attacks on Israelis.

The Russians have offered support for the plan during a three-day visit to Moscow by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was also due to hold talks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa in Cairo later on Saturday, Egyptian officials said.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana was due to hold talks with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat late on Saturday at the start of a three-day visit aimed at boosting diplomatic efforts to end the fighting and resume negotiations.

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Israel Defense Forces
Palestinian National Authority
Palestinian Red Crescent
The EU's Middle East Policy
Egyptian Presidency

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