Nine Palestinians have been killed this week in an upsurge of violence.

After weeks of bargaining, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office announced a deal that would see Labour party leader Shimon Peres serve as his number two in the new coalition.

“Peres will be named as number two to the prime minister and will be considered the most important member of the cabinet after the head of government,” the announcement said.

Mr Sharon, who has been without a parliamentary majority for the past six months, won approval earlier this month from the central committee of his Likud party to bring centre-left Labour into a new broad-based coalition.

The government’s formation had been delayed after Mr Peres asked to be given a deputy prime minister position. Israel’s basic law provides for just one such position which is already filled by Ehud Olmert.

However under a compromise deal, Mr Olmert will retain his title and assume Mr Sharon’s duties if he becomes incapacitated, even though Mr Peres has seniority in cabinet.

Labour will have eight cabinet seats in all, two of them without portfolio.

Mr Peres, the 81-year-old Nobel peace prize winner and former prime minister, has given his backing to Mr Sharon’s plans to evacuate settlers from Gaza and four isolated settlement blocs in the northern West Bank next year.

Deadly violence flared in southern Gaza Thursday, with nine killed during an Israeli raid aimed at thwarting militant attacks on nearby Jewish settlements.

Four Palestinians died Thursday evening when a rocket was fired from an Israeli drone in the Khan Yunis refugee camp, medics said.

Three of them were said to have belonged to the Abu Rish Brigades, an armed group linked to Fatah.

Earlier, Osama Tuma, 17, a Palestinian teenager with Down’s Syndrome, was fatally hit by bursts of automatic weapon fire and another 17-year-old, Mohammed Abu al-Said, was also killed by Israeli fire.

Three militants, two from the armed wing of the hardline Hamas and one from the militant al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades linked to the mainstream Fatah party, were killed overnight in the refugee camp.

“Our troops will continue the operation in that area until firing against the Gush Katif (settlement) bloc stops,” General Avi Kochavi, the commander of Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip, told army radio.

The latest deaths bring the overall toll since the September 2000 start of the Palestinian uprising to 4,656, including 3,611 Palestinians and 970 Israelis.

Mr Olmert has, meanwhile, sparked controversy when he said Israel would have to follow up the Gaza pullout with a much larger withdrawal from the West Bank.

The current plans would see just 250 settlers evacuated from isolated enclaves in the north of the territory, a relatively small figure compared with the 240,000 settlers who would remain elsewhere.

“There is no option of sitting and doing nothing. Israel’s interest requires a disengagement on a wider scale than what will happen as part of the current disengagement plan,” Mr Olmert told the Jerusalem Post.

His comments were disavowed by Mr Sharon’s office which underscored that Israel has no intention of carrying out additional redeployments after Gaza, army radio said.

Mr Sharon originally intended to implement disengagement on a unilateral basis but has since indicated a willingness to coordinate the Gaza pullout with the new Palestinian leadership emerging since the death of his arch enemy Yasser Arafat on November 11.

Meanwhile, Palestinian presidential favourite Mahmud Abbas was given a hero’s welcome in Jenin by militants from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs, including its leader Zakaria Zubeidi, who is one of Israel’s most wanted men.

Zubeidi and other Brigades members carried Abbas on their shoulders as he visited a cemetery in Jenin’s refugee camp where the victims of a massive Israeli raid in early 2002 are buried.

In a speech before some 10,000 supporters, Abbas promised to “continue the peace offensive begun by Yasser Arafat and continue on the same path to recover the rights of our people.”

Abbas’s speech was interrupted on a number of occasions when Al-Aqsa fighters unleashed volleys of gunfire into the air.

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