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Palestinian proffers hope for peace talks

JERUSALEM — Israeli-Palestinian meetings could resume in a few days, a senior Palestinian negotiator said Friday, after Israel's new prime minister, Ariel Sharon, expressed hopes of establishing "personal contact" with Yasser Arafat very soon.

Despite such tentative efforts to break the ice, violence persisted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Nine Palestinians were wounded by Israeli army fire and a tenth, a shepherd, was critically hurt in a shooting near a Jewish settlement. Three settlers were detained by police in the incident.

In the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian woman and her three daughters — aged 12, 8 and 7 — were injured when Israeli tanks fired on a residential area, Palestinian police and hospital officials said. The Israeli army spokesman said the shooting began when two grenades were thrown at Israeli army positions in the area, although no soldiers were hurt.

Palestinians fired shots close to where Israel's new defense minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, visited an Israeli army post. Ben-Eliezer, accompanied by the army chief of staff and senior commanders, stood on the roof of the building when the shots rang out. The group ducked behind a low wall before the minister was rushed away by security guards.

The army said the shots apparently were aimed at a nearby army position, not at Ben-Eliezer. "I thought it was a cap gun for Purim," Ben-Eliezer said jokingly, referring to the Jewish holiday being celebrated Friday.

In rallies in the West Bank towns of Ramallah and Tulkarem, the Islamic militant group Hamas burned cardboard models of Israeli buses and threatened more bombings in Israel.

In Tulkarem, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah, addressed a crowd of 6,000 by phone and praised Hamas for recent attacks, including a suicide bombing that killed four people Sunday in Israel.

"This is a clear message to the new government that the people of Palestine are not afraid," Nasrallah said.

Also Friday, Israeli troops blocked the top Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, from visiting parishioners in the West Bank village of Ein Arik, Sabbah's office said.

Palestinian communities have been under Israeli blockade for most of the past five months of fighting. Sabbah said in a statement that Israel must lift the travel restrictions on Palestinians immediately, and that its "policy of punishment" was only breeding more hatred and resentment.

The Israeli army had no immediate comment, but has said the blockades were aimed at preventing Palestinian attacks on Israelis. Since Sept. 28, 423 people have been killed, including 347 Palestinians, 57 Israeli Jews and 19 others.

In a message to Arafat on Thursday, Sharon said the only way to achieve peace is through "direct talks and negotiations on the basis of written and signed agreements and obligations."

"I hope we will find the way to have personal contacts in the near future," added Sharon, who in the past refused to shake Arafat's hand, and as recently as last fall branded him a "murderer."

Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo said Friday that "meetings might happen in the coming few days," but did not make specify whether he was referring to contacts at the highest level.

Sharon's son, Omri, has held talks with Arafat's economic adviser, Khaled Salam, in recent weeks, Palestinian officials said on condition of anonymity.

Sharon's adviser, Raanan Gissin, said an end to Palestinian attacks on Israelis would not be a prerequisite for a Sharon-Arafat meeting. However, formal negotiations could begin only after all violence stops, Gissin said.

Abed Rabbo, in turn, said peace talks could resume only after Israel has lifted its blockade and withdrawn troops to positions they held before the outbreak of the fighting. The Palestinians have said negotiations must pick up where they left off under Israel's previous government — a nonstarter for Sharon, who has opposed concessions offered by his predecessor, Ehud Barak.

Meanwhile, Israeli troops fired more than 50 mortar shells along the Lebanese border Friday, with at least 10 shells exploding in south Lebanon, a U.N. peacekeeping officer said. It was not immediately known what prompted the bombardment.

In Jerusalem, a spokesman for the Israeli military said he had no comment.