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Sides try to ease tension

But fresh fighting breaks out en route to Mideast deadline

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JERUSALEM — Facing a self-imposed deadline to end violence by midday Friday, Israelis and Palestinians sought to ease tensions — but fresh gunfights threatened to undermine the U.S.-brokered accord.

Jewish settlers and Palestinians on Thursday exchanged fire on Mount Ebal, one of the hills cradling the northern West Bank hub of Nablus. One Palestinian was killed and three were wounded, according to hospital officials. The army said two settlers were shot.

Settlers said Palestinians opened fire on a group of settlers who were seeking to establish a lookout to monitor a Nablus holy site evacuated by the Israelis two weeks ago. Palestinians said the settlers opened fire, unprompted, on unarmed olive harvesters.

The Israeli army soon joined the fight, and a rescue helicopter, backed by two helicopter gunships, was attempting to evacuate the wounded settlers.

Meanwhile, two Palestinian policemen died in an apparent gas explosion at the Bethlehem headquarters of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's elite Force 17 unit. A police spokesman said the explosion "was from our stores and has nothing to do with the clashes."

Police were evacuating wounded and ammunition following the explosion, which shattered the windows of a jeep in the police courtyard.

After the explosion, youths and gunmen headed toward Rachel's tomb, an Israeli-held enclave inside Bethlehem that has been the scene of clashes in the past.

In other signs of friction, Palestinian stone throwers clashed with Israeli soldiers, who responded with tear gas, in the northern Gaza Strip around midday Thursday. In Hebron in the West Bank, similar clashes erupted after Palestinians found graffiti insulting the prophet Muhammad on walls near the Jewish enclave. No injuries were reported.

Following a Mideast summit mediated by President Clinton, Israeli and Palestinian security teams on Wednesday set a 48-hour deadline for the next phase of the agreement — a two-week recovery program aimed at getting negotiators back to the table after the recent wave of violence.

The deadline was originally set for Thursday evening, but the day after the summit, security negotiators reset the deadline for midday Friday.

Part of the cease-fire plan calls for measurable steps from both sides: a pullback of Israeli tanks from the edges of Palestinian towns, easing a ban on travel that is further pummeling an already battered Palestinian economy, and the re-arrest of dozens of militants set free during the fighting.

"Once the Israelis pull out their soldiers and tanks, once the Israelis stop firing, once the siege is lifted, I think this will help a great deal," Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official, told army radio.

Israeli authorities lifted the internal closure on Palestinian areas, which allowed Palestinians to resume travel between towns inside the West Bank and Gaza.

The Israelis opened border crossings to Egypt and Jordan, and goods again started to flow between Gaza and Israel. The Palestinians were allowed to reopen their airport in Gaza after a 10-day closure. "This badly affected the Palestinian economy," said Fayez Zaydan, the general director of the airport.

However, Israel has yet to lift a closure between Israel and the Palestinian areas, barring tens of thousands of Palestinians from their jobs — and the Palestinian economy from its principal sustenance.

For their part, the Palestinians have begun to re-arrest some of the freed Islamic militants. The Palestinian leadership also issued "strict orders" to observe the truce.

Also, the two sides have held secret meetings between their security chiefs, chaired by the CIA, aimed at restraining the Palestinian militias that have led the attacks on the Palestinian side.

There was intermittent violence Wednesday in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but no one died in the clashes — a rarity since the conflagration erupted Sept. 28. Four Israeli army outposts came under fire overnight in Gaza, but no soldiers were injured, the army said Thursday morning.

More than 100 people have died since the fighting began, the worst surge of violence since the two sides began regular peace negotiations in 1993.

Israel's Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, speaking before Thursday's clashes erupted, said that sporadic fighting was still a cause of concern.

"I don't see things calming down," Ben-Ami said on Israel army radio. "I personally see something more serious happening in the Palestinian Authority which raises a major question mark. Is (Palestinian leader Yasser) Arafat in control?"

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who hosted this week's Mideast summit, said the region could ill afford an all-out war that some radical Arab leaders have suggested as an option.

In an interview Wednesday with state-run television, Mubarak stressed that "war cannot resolve" the Palestinian-Israeli crisis.

Palestinians have already accused Israel of jeopardizing the agreement by arresting at least six Palestinians suspected of taking part in the mob killings of two Israeli reserve soldiers last week in the West Bank town of Ramallah. Some of the six may have been arrested in Palestinian controlled territory, known as "area A" under agreements.

"If they entered area A, this is a terrorist act, it crosses all red lines," said Hussein Sheik, a Palestinian militia leader in Ramallah, where the mob killing took place. "I think our reaction will also be very grave, this frees the Palestinians' hand."

Israel's deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, said Israel was seeking total calm, but would not abandon the truce over low-level unrest.

"We are experienced enough to differentiate between sporadic events and a wave of violence directed by the Palestinian leadership," he said.