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Bomb Wounds Palestinian Pupils

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Bomb Wounds Palestinian Pupils

HEBRON, West Bank (Reuters) - An explosion rocked a West Bank school on Tuesday, slightly injuring five Palestinian children, and Israeli forces destroyed metal workshops in the southern Gaza Strip that they suspected were arms factories.

Israeli police said the blast, near a toilet in a primary school south of the city of Hebron, was caused by an explosive device.

The explosion fuelled suspicions that Jewish vigilantes might have been involved because of a similar incident in a Palestinian school near Jerusalem in March in which several children and a teacher were slightly hurt.

"We are checking to see...whether a Palestinian source, a criminal source or a Jewish source (was responsible)," police spokesman Gil Kleiman said of the latest blast, in Yatta, a West Bank village under Israeli security control.

The YESHA Council of Jewish Settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip issued a statement condemning the planting of bombs in Palestinian schools.

In the latest Israeli army raid in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian witnesses said about 30 tanks and armoured vehicles penetrated about two kilometres into the southern city of Khan Younis.

The army, which has stepped up raids in Gaza while enforcing curfews in West Bank cities, said its forces had demolished nine foundries used to manufacture makeshift bombs, rockets and ammunition, and detained 23 people linked to militant groups.

The owners of the workshops denied the buildings had secretly been used to make weapons. No casualties were reported and Israeli forces left several hours later.

At least 1,542 Palestinians and 591 Israelis have been killed in violence since the Palestinians rose up against Israeli occupation in September 2000.

PERES WELCOMES "POSITIVE SIGNS" FROM PALESTINIANS

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said in a radio interview he welcomed some recent "positive signs" from the Palestinians, such as calls by a top minister for an end to all violence and pressure for reforms by the Palestinian parliament.

But Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took a tough line in a speech commemorating the 1973 Middle East War, saying Israel should have responded more aggressively to what he called Palestinian violations of interim peace accords.

Palestinians say Israel failed to meet its obligations under the accords.

"If we had responded to all this aggressively, we would have prevented what has happened here in the last two years," Sharon said. "This is the Middle East. There is no mercy for any sign of weakness or restraint on the breach of agreements."

The Israeli leader, speaking against the backdrop of U.S.-Iraqi tensions, said Israel "should prepare for everything and rely mostly on ourselves".

Israel has stepped up preparations for what it fears could be Iraqi retaliation against it should the United States launch an offensive to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein over alleged procurement of weapons of mass destruction.

Wary of shaking a U.S.-led coalition that included Arab countries, Israel held its fire when Iraq launched 39 Scud missiles at its cities during the 1991 Gulf War.

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