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After Short Pause, Increased Violence Expected in Mideast

By Matthew McAllester

Israeli and Palestinian fighters took a step away from each other yesterday in the wake of a verbal agreement by their leaders, but many feared that the lower level of violence was merely a lull before a day of terrible conflict in Jerusalem today.

It was at last week’s Friday prayers at al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site for Muslims, that the clashes between Palestinian worshippers and Israeli police first became deadly. Militant Palestinian groups and Arab countries have called for all Palestinian Muslims to travel to the mosque Friday in a “day of rage.” Israeli police plan a huge security operation, guaranteeing a potentially explosive situation.

“I see more escalation, I see more tension, I see more people dying. I see the Palestinians are not going to stop,” said Manuel Hassassian, a Palestinian academic and experienced negotiator on the issue of Jerusalem. “If tomorrow we can pass with no confrontations, this is a good sign of simmering down and my worst case scenario will be null and void. But if tomorrow we witness more escalation, then forget it. It’s going to be out of hand.”

Palestinian radio broadcasts Thursday were calling for the terrorist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad to take the lead in the struggle, and the broadcasts encouraged the groups to begin bombing Tel Aviv.

“The relative quiet today doesn’t signal an end to violence and there are strong fears that riots will erupt tomorrow at Temple Mount,” said Yitzhak Eitan, a senior Israeli commander.

With the growing anxiety about Friday came a continuation on a milder scale of the violence that has over the past week turned the always tense region into a battleground. What held it slightly in check was the verbal deal Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat struck in Paris Wednesday night with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, but as with previous ceasefires, the impact of this more formal attempt truce had limited impact on the ground.

In Gaza, two Palestinians were killed at an intersection overlooked by a heavily fortified Israeli army bunker. Deep in Palestinian-controlled territory, the base is there to protect the nearby Jewish settlement of Netzarim. One of the men was killed climbing a flag pole to remove the Israeli flag.

There was fighting in the West Bank towns of Ramallah and Hebron but with the pullback of Israeli tanks from flashpoints, the fighting was not as serious as in recent days. The latest casualty count: 68 dead, 1,800 wounded, the vast majority Palestinians.

Barak skipped a meeting in Egypt with Arafat, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak because Arafat insisted on an international investigation of the conflict. Israel has a history of distrusting international inquiries into its policies.