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Palestinians Demand Israel Free Prisoners (AP) By Mohammed Daraghmeh NABLUS, West Bank 08/01/03 3:08 PM) Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A12542-2003Aug1.html
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NABLUS, West Bank –– Thousands of protesters rallied Friday in the West Bank to demand the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israel. Earlier, Israeli soldiers fired rubber bullets at demonstrators near a disputed security barrier, reportedly injuring at least 11 people.
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Conflict over the prisoners and the barrier – which had its first 90- mile section completed this week – threatens to block the peace effort. Despite White House summits with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in recent days, progress on the U.S.-backed "road map" has stalled.
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The protests, a day after a riot by Palestinian prisoners in an Israeli prison, underscored the growing tensions.
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The barrier – planned to stretch along 370 miles of electric fences, trenches, concrete blocks and coils of razor wire – is designed to stop Palestinian bombers and gunmen entering Israel. It has infuriated Palestinians because it cuts into the West Bank in some areas.
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The pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement said soldiers fired rubber bullets at about 300 Palestinians and 60 foreign supporters who dismantled a barbed-wire barrier in front of a section of the fence near Tulkarem in the northern West Bank on Friday.
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The group said three Palestinians and eight foreigners were injured.
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The army said troops had used "non-lethal means of crowd-dispersal" against a group of violent protesters who threw stones at soldiers. A spokesman said the army was investigating reports of injuries.
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Later Friday, more than 10,000 Palestinians attended a rally organized in Nablus by the Islamic group Hamas, which declared a unilateral cease-fire on June 29 along with other militant organizations.
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Dozens of militants with plastic machine guns paraded in front of the stage as speakers demanded Israel free the estimated 7,700 Palestinians, most of whom are held on suspicion of involvement in terrorism. Israel plans to release a few hundred.
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Adnan Asfour, a Hamas political leader in Nablus, told the crowd that the cease-fire would be threatened if "Israel continues breaching and violating our rights."
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Female Hamas activists performed a skit depicting Israeli soldiers and settlers evicting Palestinian villagers from their land to build the security barrier. The mock fence was then blown up by Hamas, eliciting cries of "God is great" from the crowd.
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In meetings with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas a week ago and Israeli premier Ariel Sharon on Tuesday, President Bush prodded both to meet their obligations under the road map.
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Bush said the Palestinians must disarm militant groups – as stipulated in the road map – and expressed concern about the security barrier. The barrier and the prisoners issues are not mentioned in the road map, a blueprint for ending violence and creating a Palestinian state by 2005.
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Abbas fears a crackdown on militant groups could spark civil war. Israel has said it will continue to build the disputed barrier and announced plans for 22 new housing units in a Gaza Strip settlement, despite a road map requirement that it freeze settlement activity.
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In remarks published Friday, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Bush "doesn´t like fences and he wished it wasn´t there."
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In an interview with Israel´s Maariv newspaper that also was published by the State Department, Powell was quoted as saying the United States did not dispute Israel´s right to erect a fence but he feared it was "going in ways that will make it very difficult to get to the next phases of the road map."
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Although Israel insists the barrier does not mark a political border, Powell expressed concern that "the fence is producing a fait accompli with respect to what a (Palestinian) state might look like."
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Powell also said terrorism must be "eliminated, not just for the moment ... but for good" and called on Israel to remove settlement outposts and roadblocks.
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Also Friday, hundreds of Palestinian prisoners refused food, a day after a prison riot involving about 400 Palestinian inmates left 20 prisoners and five guards injured. Israel´s prison service said 550 inmates at two jails in southern Israel were refusing to eat. It was not clear whether the fast would continue. (© 2003 The Associated Press 08/01/03)
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