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Snipers fire at Israel's defense minister

GUSH KATIF, Gaza Strip — Israel's new defense minister came under fire from Palestinian snipers today, during a tour of Israeli positions in the Gaza Strip, witnesses said.

Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a retired general, was not hurt. The army had no immediate comment.

Ben-Eliezer was visiting troops in the Gaza Strip on his third day in office and was not wearing a protective vest or helmet, contrary to standing orders, said Israeli reporters accompanying him.

The army's Gaza Strip commander, Brig. Gen. Yair Naveh, was showing Ben-Eliezer positions in the nearby Palestinian city of Khan Yunis from the rooftop of the divisional headquarters at Gush Katif, an Israeli settlement bloc, when a shot rang out and a bullet whistled overhead.

Security agents pushed Ben-Eliezer back from the edge of the roof and urged him to put on a protective vest and helmet, but he refused, Israeli reporters said.

The army's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, and other officers hustled the minister downstairs. As he walked to his car protected by a wall of agents, another shot flew past, but nobody was hit.

Ben-Eliezer is a former commander of Israeli forces in the West Bank. During a visit to the West Bank earlier today, he said Israel is not targeting the Palestinian civilian population and that the new government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will try to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

Sharon, meanwhile, sent a letter to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat to discuss a halt to violence and pave the way for a possible renewal of peace talks, a Sharon aide said today.

In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen exchanged fire in the first serious clashes since Sharon took power, and the Jewish state's security forces were on high alert for possible attacks by suicide bombers.

An aide to Sharon said the newly elected Israeli leader was willing to meet Arafat in person to discuss ending violence, but any peace negotiations could only take place after an extended lull in fighting.

Sharon sent Arafat the letter on Thursday night, saying he hoped for "personal contacts" to renew peacemaking and end violence in which at least 342 Palestinians, 65 Israelis and 13 Israeli Arabs have been killed since a Palestinian uprising erupted last September when peace talks deadlocked.