JERUSALEM, Oct. 1 (AP)--Palestinian gunmen, cheered by rock-throwing rioters, fired on Israeli troops from rooftops and abandoned buildings in clashes across the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Sunday. Seven Palestinians were killed when Israelis returned fire, for a total of 27 in three days of bloodshed over a bitterly contested Jerusalem shrine. An Israeli border policeman was critically wounded, trapped for hours in a tiny Israeli enclave in the West Bank town of Nablus, as Palestinian fire blocked rescue teams from reaching the area. The latest fighting came as Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators traded harsh accusations instead of new ideas on how to solve their disputes. In an ominous sign of escalation across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israeli troops fired anti-tank missiles, hurled grenades, and shot from helicopter gunships. Several Israeli tanks rumbled toward the Palestinian-run towns of Nablus and Ramallah in a warning gesture but did not cross the lines of jurisdiction. The deadliest battle was waged in Nablus over Joseph's Tomb, a tiny Israeli-controlled enclave smaller than a city block and ringed by a cement block wall and barbed wire. An Israeli soldier shot from a lookout post, with only the top of his helmet and his weapon visible. Palestinian gunmen, some in black ski masks, raced up to the wall and fired into the compound where some Jews believe the biblical patriarch Joseph is buried. At one point, two helicopter gunships swooped down and unleashed a barrage of fire, sending hundreds of Palestinians fleeing for cover. The army said the helicopters were brought in to rescue the wounded Israeli officer, who was taken to safety sometime after nightfall. "This is a holy struggle," said Mahmoud Jamal, one of the Palestinian demonstrators who was injured in the face as he and others tried to break down the gate of Joseph's Tomb, which was retained by Israel after it withdrew its troops from the city and other Palestinian towns in 1995. Four Palestinians were killed in the fight, including a 12-year-old boy. In the Gaza Strip, Israeli troops shot and killed three more Palestinians. The chief Israeli negotiator, acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, said the Palestinian Authority is orchestrating the violence to exert pressure on Israel and extract concessions in the negotiations. His Palestinian counterpart, Ahmed Qureia, said Israel was intensifying the violence and was "committing crimes against our defenseless people." U.S. diplomats were working frantically with both sides to try to rescue the negotiations, but with time already running short--Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak faces an opposition threat to topple him in October--prospects looked grim. "We are urging both sides to exercise maximum restraint and put an end to the violence," said P.J. Crowley, spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council. The clashes were triggered by a visit last week by the leader of Israel's hawkish opposition, Ariel Sharon, to a contested Jerusalem shrine, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Al Haram Ash-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary.
The gun battles were reminiscent of firefights in September 1996, which also erupted because of a perceived Israeli infringement on the Jerusalem mosque compound. At the time, Israel had opened an archaeological tunnel along the shrine. Four years ago, 59 Palestinians, 16 Israelis, and three Egyptians were killed.