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Palestinians say Washington must express firm support for Saudi peace plan


JERUSALEM (AP) _ The United States must express its firm support for a new Saudi peace plan if it is to succeed, a senior Palestinian official said Tuesday as three Palestinians, including a 15-month-old baby and her mother, were wounded by Israeli tank fire in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli and Palestinian security officials, meanwhile, appeared set to resume talks Tuesday, a day after three Israelis were killed in Palestinian shooting attacks and two Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli troops.

Under the Saudi proposal, floated by Crown Prince Abdullah, Israel would withdraw from virtually all the territories it occupied in the 1967 Mideast war, in return for comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world.

The Palestinians and moderate Arabs have welcomed the Saudi idea, and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said it was an important step he hoped would be fleshed out in the next few weeks.

The Israeli government said it was trying to hear from U.S. officials whether the Saudis were serious. ``We think it is too early to comment on the substance on the basis of media reports,'' said Danny Ayalon, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. ``However, if we find there is something to it, we will respond accordingly.''

Israel's influential Haaretz daily urged Sharon in an editorial Tuesday to give the Saudi plan serious consideration. ``The Saudi plan is an opportunity to sign a peace treaty with most of the Arab world (except for countries like Libya and Iraq), including the Palestinians,'' the editorial said.

Another newspaper, Maariv, published a front-page commentary by its editor-in-chief, Amnon Dankner, in support of the Saudi plan. Written as a letter to Sharon, the commentary said that ``the Saudi initiative could be the straw that saves you.''

Sharon has fiercely opposed a total pullout. But he knows Israelis are despondent over 17 months of dead-end conflict and eager for a ray of hope. The Saudi proposal offers two things Israel craves: broad acceptance by Arab states and a negotiating partner beyond Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

However, any discussion of significant concessions to Palestinians could undermine Sharon's governing coalition _ a patchwork of parties with widely divergent positions on the land-for-peace idea.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said Tuesday that for the initiative to succeed, ``a firm American and international position (of support) has to be taken.''

In Riyadh, an editorial in the Saudi newspaper Al Watan said no Israeli-Saudi visits will be held until a Mideast peace agreement has been reached.

On Monday, Israeli President Moshe Katsav informally invited Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah to Jerusalem to detail the Saudi proposal. Katsav also said he would go to Riyadh if invited.

``An exchange of visits _ if it takes place _ will only occur to solidify agreements that had been signed and not at the start of an initiative that the Israelis have yet to take a clear and specific stand on,'' the state-controlled Al Watan wrote.

In new fighting Tuesday, three Palestinian civilians were wounded by Israeli tank and machine gun fire toward their homes in the Rafah refugee camp, doctors said. An 18-year-old was seriously wounded, and a 15-month-old girl and her 25-year-old mother were hurt by shrapnel, doctors at Rafah's hospital said. Witnesses said soldiers fired seven tank shells and also aimed machine gun fire at the camp.

The Israeli military said shots were fired at a nearby Israeli army post, and that troops returned fire.

On Monday, Palestinian gunmen, striking two hours apart, killed two Israeli motorists near a Jewish settlement in the West Bank and wounded eight at a bus stop in a Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem, the sector claimed by the Palestinians as a future capital. A policewoman wounded in the bus stop attack died of her injuries Tuesday.

Earlier, Israeli soldiers killed two Palestinians at West Bank roadblocks, one a 16-year-old girl who tried to stab soldiers, according to the military, and the other, a husband rushing his wife to a hospital to give birth.

The Al Aqsa Brigades, a militia linked to Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the two shooting attacks.
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