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Israel tightens security as Gaza truce takes hold


A supporter takes part in a pro-Israel demostration in San Salvador, El Salvador. A Palestinian was shot dead today by Israeli forces near the Gaza border, the first casualty since the truce ending their conflict AFP PHOTO

Israel: Israel restricted Palestinian access to Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque compound and kept a tight grip on security as a first fatality tested a hard-won truce ending fighting in and around Gaza.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rightwing Likud party prepared for a primary on Sunday amid signs its popularity is slipping among Israelis who would have preferred a ground invasion of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Tensions on the streets of annexed Arab east Jerusalem remained high on Friday, the day after angry demonstrators stormed an Israeli police station in a bid to secure the release of a Palestinian woman who tried to stab a border guard.

The army reported arresting 28 suspected West Bank militants including five members of Hamas in the wake of a security sweep on Thursday in which 55 "terror operatives" were detained. Israel decided on further precaution by barring Palestinians under the age of 40 from accessing the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem Islam's third holiest site which is also revered by Jews.

The mosque compound has been the focus of past clashes, and Israel sought to prevent any repetition that could jeopardise the truce ending eight days of fighting in which 166 Palestinians and six Israelis died. The ceasefire was holding despite a dozen rockets being fired at Israel from Gaza in the first post-truce hours and a warning from Netanyahu that he would resume the offensive if need be.

The Palestinians also reported their first post-conflict casualty at the hands of Israeli soldiers who reportedly opened fire on a group of farmers near the Gaza border on Friday. "This is the first Israeli violation of the truce," Sami Abu Zuhri of the Islamist Hamas movement that rules Gaza told.

Hamas "will raise this violation with Egyptian mediators to make sure that it does not happen again", the spokesman added. An Israeli army representative said the troops were forced to fire warning shots after hundreds of Palestinians attacked a border fence in an apparent attempt to take it down.

The Palestinian emergency services identified the victim as 21-year-old Abdelhadi Qdeih Anwar. They added that 19 other Palestinians suffered gunshot wounds in the village of Khuzaa. No rockets were fired in reprisal by Hamas. And another young Palestinian was announced dead on Friday after having "inhaled a poisonous gas" during repairs of a tunnel damaged in an Israeli air strike on the southern sector of Rafah, bordering Egypt, the Hamas health ministry said.

Likud support slips
Israel slammed Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on Friday for his support for Gaza following its confrontation with the Jewish state, while casting aspersions on the legitimacy of his upcoming bid for an upgraded Palestinian status at the United Nations.

Abbas has had no control over Gaza since 2007, when the Islamist Hamas seized power from his Fatah faction in a week of street battles, cleaving the Palestinians into hostile rival camps. According to Hamas, Abbas telephoned Gaza's Hamas premier Ismail Haniya on Thursday to congratulate him "on his victory and (offer) condolences for the martyrs".

An official who attends Israeli cabinet meetings said "it's not worthy that president Abbas did not once condemn the deadly rocket fire from Gaza on Israel's innocent civil population." "Instead he chooses to praise the Hamas leadership for their crimes."

Israel is frustrated and concerned over Abbas's intention to put the Palestinian bid for non-state observer membership to the UN General Assembly on November 29, which is expected to pass with ease despite vigorous opposition from the United States.

Israel says the bid is a breach of the 1993 Oslo Accords, intended to pave the way for a full resolution of the conflict. In Damascus, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said his country and Iran saluted "the great victory of the Palestinian resistance against the Israeli aggression".

According to Syrian state news agency SANA, Assad and visiting Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani welcomed the "failure" of Israel's offensive on Gaza. Back in Israel, the first opinion polls assessing the government's handling of the Gaza conflict in the run-up to a snap general election called for January showed a general sense of disappointment that Netanyahu's government had accepted the ceasefire terms.

A study commissioned by the Maariv newspaper found 49 percent of respondents saying Israel should have continued its operation of air strikes and just 31 percent agreeing with the truce. The same poll showed support for Netanyahu's Likud party slipping by six percentage points over the past month.

But Likud was still leading the opposition Labour party by a 37-to-22 percent margin and remains on track to form a new governing coalition with ultra-nationalist and Jewish Orthodox groups. Maariv said many Israelis felt the truce spelled a "missed opportunity" for the Jewish state to eradicate Gaza's Hamas leaders.

Sunday's Likud primary will decide who makes it onto the party list to be put to voters on January 22. Analysts are watching to see if the party tilts further to the right in response to public disaffection over the truce.

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