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Arab lawmakers back peace reforms

©Associated Press

March 18, 2003

JERUSALEM -- The Palestinian Parliament on Monday rebuffed Yasser Arafat's attempt to dilute the authority of a future prime minister, keeping reforms sought by Washington alive for now. In the Gaza Strip, 10 Palestinians, including a 4-year-old girl, were killed in two Israeli raids.

The confrontation between the increasingly assertive lawmakers and Arafat, 73, is being closely watched by international Mideast mediators. President Bush said last week that a prime minister with real powers must be installed before a U.S.-backed three-year "road map" toward Palestinian statehood can be unveiled.

Parliament rejected Arafat's demand that he retain a say in appointing Cabinet ministers and he summoned rebellious legislators afterward in hopes of changing their minds before a final vote Tuesday. Fatah has a majority in the 88-member Parliament.

Attempts to restart Middle East diplomacy could be derailed if Washington determines that the new prime minister does not have sufficient authority and is dependent on Arafat.

Also Monday, international pro-Palestinian activists disputed the Israeli military's claim that an American woman crushed by an Israeli bulldozer was killed accidentally. The International Solidarity Movement said in a statement that Rachel Corrie, 23, of Olympia, Wash., was clearly visible to the driver of the bulldozer as she stood in the vehicle's path to try to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home.

Corrie was killed Sunday, the first foreign protester to be killed in 29 months of Palestinian-Israeli violence. A member of the International Solidarity Movement said her body was taken Monday evening from a Gaza hospital morgue to Tel Aviv, from where it would be flown home.

The Israeli military said the driver did not see Corrie, but the group rejected that in a statement. "When the bulldozer refused to stop or turn aside, she climbed up onto the mound of dirt and rubble being gathered in front of it ... to look directly at the driver who kept on advancing," it said.

In a statement Monday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Anne Marks said, "We urge the Israelis to consider the consequences of their actions and to respect the dignity of Palestinian civilians, the vast majority of whom is not involved in terrorist violence."

In the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, 10 Palestinians were killed in fighting between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen in the Nusseirat refugee camp and in an army raid on the nearby town of Beit Lahiya.

Israeli forces entered Nusseirat about 4 a.m., as residents headed to mosques for morning prayers and farmers began taking crops to market.

Undercover troops surrounded the four-story home of Mohammed Saafen, 34, a leader of the militant Islamic Jihad group in central Gaza. Saafen's relatives came out of the house, but the fugitive barricaded himself inside and shot at soldiers, drawing return fire.

Saafen's 75-year-old father was shot in the leg. Several neighbors said the elderly man was deliberately shot by a soldier trying to force the fugitive to surrender. The army had no comment.

The wanted man was killed in the fighting, and soldiers blew up the house.

Fighting also erupted elsewhere in the camp, with troops firing machine guns from helicopters and tanks toward gunmen hiding in alleys and shacks.

In one three-room hut shared by 35 members of the Assar family, women and children huddled as the fighting raged outside. Ihlam Assar, 4, was killed by tank fire, said her aunt, Itmead.

An Israeli army commander insisted no civilians were killed by his troops. "They (Palestinians) fire in every direction with the goal of hitting us and if they hit their own people, so be it," said the commander, identified only as Lt. Col. Adam.

In all, seven Palestinians were killed in Nusseirat: four gunmen, two boys age 13 and 17, and the 4-year-old girl. Hospital officials said 25 residents were wounded.

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