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Tit-for-tat violence drags on in Mideast

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JERUSALEM — The Israeli army seized a Palestinian-ruled area near the West Bank city of Nablus and killed a policeman after Palestinians shot and wounded a Jewish settler couple and their child on Thursday.

The Israeli military said its soldiers had taken over a hill overlooking the Palestinian-run city and the Jewish settlement of Har Bracha, where the family was fired on in their car.

Palestinian witnesses said the army had occupied three homes in the nearby village of Kufur Qallil and razed uninhabited houses, erecting a checkpoint.

Israeli tank shells hit two outposts in Nablus belonging to Palestinian intelligence and the national security force, killing a policeman, security and hospital officials said.

Separately, Palestinians fired at a car near the settlement of Kiryat Arba, critically injuring its driver — a Jewish settler — and wounding two people nearby, Israeli police said.

In the Nablus shooting, the father had a serious injury while the mother and infant were lightly wounded.

The incidents were fresh evidence that a cease-fire — adopted by the two sides a month ago with the help of the United States and meant to end nine months of Israeli-Palestinian violence — has failed to take root.

The fresh violence coincided with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's departure for Italy as part of a campaign to drum up European pressure against Palestinian President Yasser Arafat to prevent attacks on Israelis.

The 145 Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip are at the heart of the Palestinian uprising against military occupation. Many movements into or out of settlements now take place under army escort.

Under international law Jewish settlements on occupied Arab land are illegal, and a plan to revive peacemaking drawn up by former U.S. senator George Mitchell has called for an Israeli freeze on settlement construction.

Sharon goes to Italy

The fresh violence coincided with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's departure for Italy as part of a campaign to drum up European pressure against Palestinian President Yasser Arafat to prevent attacks on Israelis.

"I would say the first contribution that Italy could have is to put pressure on Arafat that he must stop terror," he told the Italian television station RAI on Wednesday.

He said Palestinian President Yasser Arafat had never given instructions to stop incitement to violence.

"The only answer to that . . . should be pressure on Arafat to stop terror," he said, adding it might take three to four months to resume any dialogue on a peace settlement.

No progress was made late on Wednesday at the latest regular meeting between Israeli and Palestinian security representatives in the presence of U.S. officials.

Palestinian Major-General Abdel-Razek al-Majaydeh said the Palestinians were demanding an apology and the payment of compensation for the demolition of Palestinian houses in the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem this week.

Twenty-six houses in Gaza were demolished to try to prevent attacks on an adjacent army border outpost, while the houses in Jerusalem were ruled illegal by the municipality.

"We could not keep silent about such serious violations," Majaydeh said in a statement.

He said the meeting had been stormy, and that the Palestinian delegation had walked out after handing the Israeli side a memorandum and refusing to discuss Israeli complaints about attacks on Israelis.

"Israel is attempting to blow up all efforts being exerted by the Palestinian Authority to restore calm and to contain fire shooting incidents," he said.

Cycle of violence

At least 20 Palestinians, including a suicide bomber, and 10 Israelis have been killed in a cycle of tit-for-tat violence that has barely abated since the cease-fire.

Jewish settlers said the family near Har Bracha had been fired on by attackers posing as uniformed Israeli soldiers.

A Reuters photographer said settlers had attacked a Palestinian ambulance that went to help the family, and that a Palestinian motorist had been hurt when settlers pelted his car with stones.

The settlers also attacked television crews, one of them from Reuters, smashing their cars with rocks and rifle butts.

On Wednesday U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called on Israel to avoid provocative steps, including demolishing Palestinian homes, and urged the Palestinians to do what they could to stop violence on their side.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Wednesday said that actions such as the demolition of Palestinian homes "only aggravate the already extremely tense situation in the occupied Palestinian territory."

Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Israel Radio that he, Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres had held talks with Egyptian general intelligence chief Omar Suleiman on Wednesday on the Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Egypt recalled its ambassador to Tel Aviv in November in protest at what it called "Israeli aggression" against Palestinians, but the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth said contacts had continued through Suleiman, who had also played a central role in Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Peres said Suleiman had voiced fears Israel and the Palestinians would never carry out the truce-to-peacemaking report of a panel led by Mitchell.

At least 479 Palestinians, 124 Israelis and 13 Israeli Arabs have been killed since the Palestinian uprising erupted in September.