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1 more killed in Gaza as hopes for peace fade

A Palestinian police officer was killed in a fierce gunbattle with Israeli troops Friday in the Gaza Strip, as renewed clashes overshadowed President Clinton's peace initiative.

The army cordoned off the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip after a bombing Thursday in which two Israeli soldiers were killed and two were wounded, and Friday prayers passed quietly in Jerusalem. The Old City was, as usual, hemmed in with riot-equipped police officers. An observation blimp dangling a television camera was tethered overhead.

But in the Gaza Strip, Israeli soldiers bulldozing a grove of trees near a Palestinian police post came under fire from the police and snipers. As the shooting raged, the army fired a single tank shell, which the Palestinians said killed a police officer. At least 346 people have died in the past three months of violence.

There was shooting, too, with several Palestinians injured, in Ramallah, a frequent flash point. The army said it was responding to Palestinian fire directed toward two Israeli jeeps.

Clinton's peace efforts appeared to be flagging after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat sent a non-committal reply, listing a number of questions and objections. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has sent a conditional acceptance _ the Israelis have objections and questions, too _ that depends on agreement by the Palestinians.

The central idea, painful for both sides, is a kind of swap in which the Palestinians would gain sovereignty over the Muslim holy places above the Temple Mount, but give up claims of the right of refugees to return to Israel.

But on Israeli television Friday, Barak seemed more rigid on both issues, reportedly reiterating remarks made at a Cabinet meeting Wednesday. He insisted that he would not concede sovereignty over Temple Mount.

"I don't plan on signing a document that would transfer sovereignty of the Temple Mount _ the anchor of our identity _ to the Palestinians," he said.

He also said: "The government under my leadership will not accept any agreement under any situation that will accept the "right of return' in any shape or form. Period."

In Nablus, a rally of about 10,000 supporters of Hamas, the Islamic militant organization, cheered the burning of a replica of a blue and white bus of the kind that was bombed in Tel Aviv on Thursday. Hamas has claimed responsibility for the bombing, which injured 14 Israelis.

The leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, Sheik Hassan Nasrullah, addressed the crowd through a telephone hookup from Beirut, urging supporters to continue their intifada until Israel is destroyed.

The bombing Thursday in the Gaza Strip that killed the two Israeli soldiers was of a sophistication that worries Israeli security officials, who fear that the Palestinians are adopting the ambush techniques that Hezbollah has used against them in southern Lebanon.

The Israeli troops were lured to the site by a report of a bomb. As a demolition expert from the paramilitary Border Police found one and tried to defuse it, a second bomb went off, killing him and an army captain and wounding two soldiers. The bomb was thought to have been set off remotely, using a cell phone, a technique not seen here before.

Police in Tel Aviv said they think cell phone detonators were also used in the bombing of the bus.

Arafat said Thursday that he would discuss the Clinton plan with Arab foreign ministers on Monday. But on Friday, the meeting was put off until Thursday, six days before what Clinton has called his final deadline, Jan. 10.

Israeli television reported Friday that Barak's chief of staff, Gilad Sher, met secretly in Cairo on Thursday with Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator, and was told that Arafat had not made a decision.

Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian minister, said that wide differences remain between the Clinton proposals and the Palestinian position. "They need to be clarified and developed in order to really go forward," he said.