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Israeli-Palestinian violence flares anew

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JERUSALEM — Israeli soldiers fought Palestinian gunmen across the West Bank and Gaza Strip in fresh outbursts of violence that indicated a U.S.-brokered cease-fire was close to collapse Saturday.

The West Bank town of Hebron, scene of one of the fiercest gunbattles since a Palestinian revolt began, was quiet late Friday except for bursts of automatic weapons fired in the air by Palestinian gunmen at a late night anti-Israel rally.

The gunbattle that erupted in the early hours of Friday morning was triggered by a Palestinian attack on Jewish settlers near Hebron, a city holy to Muslims and Jews.

One of the settlers died shortly after the shooting. Another died in a Jerusalem hospital Friday evening from bullet wounds to the head, the Israeli army said.

Two Palestinians, one a woman, were moderately to seriously wounded in the gunbattle, in which Israeli tanks fired at positions held by President Yasser Arafat's Force-17 guards. Scores more were lightly hurt or suffered from shock.

In violence late Friday, the Israeli army reported its soldiers came under Palestinian fire near the West Bank city of Ramallah, near Hebron in the southern West Bank, and in the Gaza Strip where the army said anti-tank grenades were fired.

There were no immediate reports of casualties in the incidents, which underscored the failure of a month-old truce brokered by the United States to end almost 10 months of violence in which more than 600 people have died.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who returned home from a two-day visit to Italy, told reporters he sent his son, Omri, to meet Arafat Thursday on the advice of security officials.

The younger Sharon has met Arafat at least twice on his father's behalf and they reportedly have a warm relationship.

Sharon said he jotted down in a spiral notebook a message for his son to take to the Palestinian leader, outlining "the absolute need to stop the terror and violence as a condition for the continuation of the diplomatic process." In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Secretary of State Colin Powell urged Sharon in a phone call Thursday evening to do his utmost to prevent a deterioration of the situation.

"The secretary, once again, emphasized the importance of immediate action on both sides to prevent any further deterioration on the ground," Boucher told reporters.

Two Palestinian militants were killed Friday. One was shot and killed after he threw a hand grenade at Israeli soldiers defusing a roadside bomb and the other died in a mysterious car blast the militant Islamic group Hamas blamed on Israel.