JERUSALEM -- Facing a self-imposed deadline to end violence by midday Friday, Israelis and Palestinians sought to ease tensions -- but fresh gunfights threatened to undermine the U.S.-brokered accord.
Jewish settlers and Palestinians on Thursday exchanged fire on Mount Ebal, one of the hills cradling the northern West Bank hub of Nablus. One Palestinian was killed and three were wounded, according to hospital officials. The army said two settlers were shot.
Settlers said Palestinians opened fire on a group of settlers who were seeking to establish a lookout to monitor a Nablus holy site evacuated by the Israelis two weeks ago. Palestinians said the settlers opened fire, unprompted, on unarmed olive harvesters.
The Israeli army soon joined the fight, and a rescue helicopter, backed by two helicopter gunships, was attempting to evacuate the wounded settlers.
Meanwhile, two Palestinian policemen died in an apparent gas explosion at the Bethlehem headquarters of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's elite Force 17 unit. A police spokesman said the explosion "was from our stores and has nothing to do with the clashes."
In other signs of friction, Palestinian stone throwers clashed with Israeli soldiers, who responded with tear gas, in the northern Gaza Strip around midday Thursday. In Hebron in the West Bank, similar clashes erupted after Palestinians found graffiti insulting the prophet Muhammad on walls near the Jewish enclave. No injuries were reported.
Following a Mideast summit mediated by President Clinton, Israeli and Palestinian security teams on Wednesday set a 48-hour deadline for the next phase of the agreement -- a two-week recovery program aimed at getting negotiators back to the table after the recent wave of violence.
The deadline was originally set for Thursday evening, but the day after the summit, security negotiators reset the deadline for midday Friday.
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