(AP) BEIT LAHIA, Gaza Strip – Yasser Arafat’s expulsion is “closer than ever,” the Israeli foreign minister said in remarks broadcast Thursday, and seven Palestinians were killed and 27 wounded in clashes with Israeli troops in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In one incident, in northern Gaza, soldiers opened fire from a tank-mounted machine gun, killing three Palestinians, including a 9-year-old boy, hospital officials said.
The fighting came as Arafat was embroiled in another power struggle with his prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, who submitted a letter of resignation earlier this week, his second since July. Arafat refused to accept the resignation, and Qureia left in a huff on a private trip to Jordan on Thursday.
It was not clear whether Qureia would stick to his decision to resign.
Arafat, meanwhile, became the target of renewed Israeli threats. Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told supporters in a speech late Wednesday that Arafat’s expulsion is “closer than ever” and that the Palestinian leader has no place in the region. The remarks were broadcast Thursday on Israel Radio.
Earlier this week, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said the government remained committed to a security Cabinet decision from last year to remove Arafat.
However, senior government officials say there are no immediate plans to take action against Arafat.
The renewed threats by Shalom apparently were part of domestic Israeli politics. Shalom is seen as a potential successor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as leader of the ruling Likud Party, and is courting hawkish activists.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat accused Israeli officials of inciting against Arafat. “I believe this is part of the strategy of destroying the Palestinian Authority and harming the president,” Erekat said.
Arafat has been confined to his battered headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah for more than two years. Israel accuses Arafat of encouraging militant groups to attack Israel — an allegation Arafat denies.
Israel has repeatedly threatened to expel the veteran Palestinian leader. But the United States opposes such a step, and Sharon has complied with Washington’s wishes. It also appears unlikely he would risk destabilizing the region further at a time when he is trying to push ahead with his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip in 2005, as part of a unilateral “disengagement” from the Palestinians. Sharon hopes the plan will enable Israel to hold on to large West Bank settlement blocs.
In northern Gaza, Israeli tanks blocked major roads Thursday, as troops tried to prevent the firing of homemade rockets at Israeli settlements. In sporadic clashes, soldiers traded fire with Palestinian gunmen and teens hurled stones at tanks. The area also came under machine gun fire from attack helicopters.
On the outskirts of the sprawling Jebaliya refugee camp, one gunman was killed and three were wounded when an Israeli attack helicopter fired two missiles.
Later Thursday, soldiers fired from a tank-mounted machine gun toward a group of Palestinians, including gunmen, stone throwers and bystanders, in the adjacent town of Beit Lahia, witnesses said. Three Palestinians were killed by large-caliber bullets in the area, including a 9-year-old boy, doctors said.
The army said it was unaware of machine gun fire near Beit Lahia.
Troops have been operating in the area since Wednesday to try to stop the firing of homemade rockets from northern Gaza at Israeli towns. On Wednesday, militants fired eight homemade “Qassam” rockets, but no one was hurt.
Troops also entered the West Bank town of Jericho, exchanging fire with three Palestinians. One gunman was killed and two were wounded, the army said.
At the funeral of the Jericho gunman in a refugee camp near Ramallah, thousands marched in the streets, including hundreds of armed men.
After the funeral, an angry crowd surrounded an army jeep and threw stones at it. The jeep sped off at high speed, running over and killing a 19-year-old man, witnesses said. The army confirmed the jeep hit someone, but said it had no details.
A seventh Palestinian was killed near the Israeli settlement bloc of Gush Katif early Thursday. The army said unarmed men had walked into a “no-go zone” near the settlements and that soldiers opened fire, killing one.
(UPDATES throughout with one more Palestinian killed in West Bank, corrects age of dead Palestinian boy to 9, sted 13, Changes dateline, byline.)