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Some Palestinians tiring of protests

A Palestinian "day of rage" failed to turn out massive numbers of protesters Wednesday, amid signs that many Palestinians are tiring of daily battles with Israeli soldiers and starting to question whether violence is doing them any good.

"There is no day of rage. People are just looking for a loaf of bread," said Jamil Abu Dayah, 38, a Gaza City bakery owner whose business has almost ground to a halt because of the continuing Israeli-Palestinian clashes. "Most people are just trying to get through the day. We want things to get back to normal."

Hundreds rather than thousands heeded a call from Palestinian leaders for large-scale protests throughout the West Bank, which is a predominantly Palestinian area between Jordan and Israel, and the Gaza Strip, located between Israel and Egypt. The daylong campaign was to protest Israel's closure of the areas, severely limiting the number of Palestinians who can get to work in Israel, to markets to buy food, or even to doctors for medical care.

Two people died in Wednesday's protests. One was a 19-year-old killed by Israeli soldiers.

The other was a diabetic woman who died after being blocked at an Israeli checkpoint and prevented from getting to a hospital in time.

Days of rage have been used by militants to foment violence that goads Israeli security forces into firing back and creating martyrs, and there was sporadic violence Wednesday.

But grim economic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza are causing as much suffering as the bullets and checkpoints.

Unemployment is now at 48 percent and will likely grow if the Israeli blockades continue. Almost a third of the Palestinian population is living on less than $2 a day and more than 90,000 students can't get to school.

The deteriorating conditions in Palestinian areas are causing people to look for another way to resist the Israelis.

At the same time, Israel's easing of blockades around some Palestinian towns may be a sign that Israel is looking for ways other than force to prevent violence.

Gaza psychologist Eyad el Sarraj is one Palestinian urging non-violence.

"The intifada (uprising) can take on a new life if it goes on as non-violent resistance," said Sarraj. "There should not be a single stone," said Sarraj, explaining that Palestinians should only use peaceful means to fight the Israelis.

Sarraj represents a small but growing voice among Palestinians who believe they should move away from bombing Israeli civilians and shooting at soldiers.

He wants to try peaceful demonstrations, such as forming human chains around settlements or staging acts of civil disobedience.

Khalil Bashir, a Palestinian school principal, agrees.

Bashir's family lives near the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom in the Gaza Strip.

His house is just 30 feet from the sandbags and barbed wire of a small Israeli army post set up to protect the settlement from Palestinian snipers.

In fact, the Israeli army for the past two months has taken over the third floor of Bashir's home for a lookout post.

Israeli soldiers believe Palestinian militants have used Bashir's property to fire at the settlement and they've repeatedly attacked his home. Bullet holes and shell casings litter the rooms, and the home is severely damaged.

"In spite of their violence, I have made up my mind not to leave this house," said Bashir. "I'm armed with my goodwill. I can't leave the cradle of my childhood. What would I answer my sons when they ask me why?"

Bashir says he is dedicated to non-violence and believes the bloodshed has not helped his people.

He's teaching his children the same, even though Israelis have fired into his home, one bullet lodging in his son's English textbook, another slicing into his trousers hanging inside his bedroom closet.

The question remains whether the Palestinian leadership will be affected by such thinking.

Senior Palestinian official Ahed Qurei recently told journalists that the leadership should consider starting a peaceful uprising.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer unveiled a plan at the first meeting of the government's new security Cabinet on Wednesday that would ease some restrictions on Palestinians. The announcement came just days before Sharon heads for Washington to hold his first meeting as prime minister with President Bush.

In a statement, the security Cabinet said that, for the first time in months, construction materials would be allowed into the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Palestinians would be permitted to fish off the Gaza coast. The Palestinian Authority would be allowed to start building a long-delayed power plant in Gaza, and Palestinians would be given greater freedom to travel between their towns and villages.

Speaking to the Knesset, Israel's parliament, Ben-Eliezer said he hoped that "very quickly we will lift the closure completely" on the West Bank.

"I will do everything possible to ease the conditions of the population," he said. "I hereby commit, from the podium of the Knesset, that I will do everything so that they will see as few tanks and helicopters as possible in the territories and as many residents who are working and living in dignity."