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Israelis fight Palestinians attacking blockade

Tanks, trenches, ramparts block Ramallah access

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israeli soldiers fired tear gas and rubber-coated bullets Monday at hundreds of Palestinians using a bulldozer to try to break through an Israeli army blockade, part of a new chokehold on Ramallah.

A Palestinian man was killed by Israeli fire, doctors said.

The blockade was imposed Sunday, with tanks, trenches and ramparts cutting off all access to Ramallah, a town of about 50,000 people that is the Palestinians' political and commercial center. It also isolated dozens of nearby villages that are home to tens of thousands of residents.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon denied that the restrictions were part of a tougher policy toward the Palestinians, saying the army had imposed the tight closure in response to specific warnings about a terrorist attack. Sharon aides said they believed the Ramallah closure would be eased in the coming days.

Across the West Bank, however, new roadblocks and barriers have been erected since Sharon took power last week — such as a tank parked across an access road to Jerusalem on Monday, tying up traffic from the West Bank.

Israeli media reports said the closure was part of a new army plan, approved by Sharon, under which troops will cut up the West Bank and Gaza Strip into dozens of smaller areas, and tightly control each subdivision.

However, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Monday that he has ordered the lifting of blockades around four West Bank Palestinian cities — Bethlehem, Tulkarem, Qalqilya and Hebron.

Ben-Eliezer said the blockade around Ramallah also would have been lifted had the government not learned that a Palestinian group in Ramallah intended to plant a car bomb in an Israeli city. The prime minister's office said the target was Jerusalem.

Palestinian activists have designated Wednesday and Friday as "days of rage," to be marked by confrontations with Israeli troops.

On Monday, about 1,500 Palestinians, led by Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo and legislator Hanan Ashrawi, marched toward a barrier north of Ramallah to protest the blockade. Israeli troops fired rubber bullets and tear gas toward the crowd as a bulldozer, decorated with a Palestinian flag, approached Israeli positions.

One marcher, 28-year-old Abdel Kader Abu Akroub, was killed by what Palestinian doctors said was a live round. The army denied it fired live ammunition.

To date, 425 people have been killed in the fighting, including 349 Palestinians, 57 Israeli Jews and 19 others.

Sharon's Cabinet met for its first session Monday, and ministers were sharply divided over the Ramallah closure.

Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh, of the center-left Labor Party, warned that tougher measures would backfire.

"It makes things hard for the general population and makes them feel they have nothing to lose. It brings more people into the cycle of violence and internationally causes Israel great damage," Sneh told Israel army radio. "It does not turn the rage towards the perpetrators (of anti-Israel attacks), but towards us."

Far-right ministers, including Avigdor Lieberman, said punitive measures against the Palestinians should be increased.

Since the start of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, Israel has enforced stringent travel restrictions on nearly 3 million Palestinians. Residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip are barred from entering Israel.

Troops have repeatedly cut Gaza in half, preventing north-south movement, and have also enforced a blockade of West Bank towns and village.

In the case of Ramallah, the blockade had been incomplete, with motorists being able to use several bumpy backroads to get in and out of the city. On Sunday, all roads were sealed with trenches, ramparts and tanks.