Israelis Put Down Fence Protests; Palestinian Prisoners Riot

Israeli soldiers fired rubber bullets Friday at protesters who approached the disputed "security fence" Israel is building around — and sometimes through — Palestinian areas. A protest group said 11 demonstrators were injured.

Also Friday, hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails refused food, a day after a prison riot left 20 prisoners and five guards injured.

Separate White House summits with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the past week have so far failed to energize halting peace moves, and tensions over prisoners and the security barrier threaten the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.

The pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement (search) said soldiers fired rubber bullets at about 300 Palestinians and 60 foreign supporters who dismantled a barbed-wire barrier in front of a section of the security fence near Tulkarem (search) in the northern West Bank. The group said three Palestinians and eight foreigners were injured.

The army said troops had used "non-lethal means of crowd-dispersal" against a group of violent protesters attempting to vandalize the fence. A spokesman said the army was investigating reports of injuries.

The controversial barrier — a 600-kilometer (370-mile) series of electronic fences, trenches, concrete and coils of razor wire — is designed to stop Palestinian bombers and gunmen entering Israel. It has infuriated Palestinians because it cuts deep into Palestinian territory in several places, isolating many towns and villages.

The fence and the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel have emerged as major issues of contention, though neither is mentioned in the road map plan.

Since the main Palestinian militant groups declared a truce on June 29, Palestinians have been demanding that Israel release most of the approximately 7,700 Palestinian prisoners it holds. Israel is offering to free a few hundred, including dozens from the militant groups Hamas (search) and Islamic Jihad (search).

But no militants have yet been freed, and Palestinian anger is growing over that issue and slow progress in other areas of the road map.

Israel's prison service said 550 inmates at two jails in southern Israel were refusing to eat meals Friday. It was not clear whether the fast would continue.

On Thursday about 400 Palestinian inmates rioted for several hours at a prison in the southern Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon (search), pelting guards with cups, plates and burning newspapers.

The prison service said 20 prisoners were slightly injured by tear gas; five guards also were hurt, none seriously. Israeli media said the prisoners were trying to prevent wardens from inspecting their cells.

In a statement sent to The Associated Press in Beirut, Lebanon, Hamas warned that a failure to free the prisoners might lead it to rethink its truce.

The group said it held Israel "responsible for the repercussions of its continued detention of the prisoners as well as the practical results and repercussions on the Palestinian initiative to suspend military operations."

In meetings with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas last Friday and Israeli premier Ariel Sharon on Tuesday, U.S. President George W. Bush prodded both sides to meet their obligations under the road map. Bush said the Palestinians must disarm militant groups, and expressed concern about Israel's security barrier.

Abbas fears a crackdown on militant groups could spark a violent confrontation, and wants to persuade them to end attacks.

Israel has said it will continue to build the disputed barrier, and also announced Thursday it would build new housing in a Gaza Strip settlement, despite a road map requirement that Israel freeze all settlement activity, including the "natural growth" of existing settlements.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said U.S. officials were talking to Israel about implementing the plan.

"A freeze is a freeze," he said.

Palestinians demand that all the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza be removed as part of creation of a Palestinian state.

The "road map" leads through three stages to a Palestinian state in 2005, but beyond the freeze and removal of unauthorized Israeli outposts, it leaves the fate of the settlements for final-status negotiations.

Israel has pulled out of the West Bank town of Bethlehem and parts of the Gaza Strip, and under the road map is supposed to withdraw gradually from other Palestinian areas.

The Israeli and Palestinian security chiefs held inconclusive talks this week on Israel turning more towns over to Palestinian control.

Also Friday, the Israeli army said it arrested eight militants overnight across the West Bank. One militant was shot and injured by soldiers after he drew a pistol, the military said.