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Israeli soldiers shoot dead 2 Palestinians

JERUSALEM - As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepared yesterday to embark on a trip to Washington to mend U.S.-Israeli ties, tensions built in the West Bank when Israeli soldiers shot dead two Palestinians they say threatened them with a pitchfork and an ax.

The shootings brought the Palestinian death toll to four in two days in the Nablus region. On Saturday, two teenagers were shot by soldiers after a clash with Jewish settlers over a water well.

Yesterday's violence arose after an Israeli military patrol stopped to question two Palestinians they deemed suspicious, Israeli military officials said.

"When they got out of their vehicle, the Palestinians tried to stab a soldier with a pitchfork and an ax," an army spokeswoman said.

Palestinian officials said the men were local farmers.

Meanwhile, human rights groups challenged Israeli army assertions the two teenagers at the well Saturday were shot with rubber bullets.

Mohamed Qadus, 16, died Saturday from chest wounds. Asaud Qadus, 19, believed to be a cousin, died yesterday of a shot to the head, hospital officials said.

Officials with B'Tselem and Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, two groups that work on behalf of Palestinians, released photos of the teenagers' injuries that they said show the army used live rounds.

"There's no way rubber bullets could cause that kind of damage," said Jonathan Pollock, a spokesman for the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee.

Israeli officials insisted only rubber bullets were used, but said they are investigating the case.

The weekend violence came as Netanyahu left for Washington to attend a conference of a pro-Israel lobbying group and to meet with Obama administration officials following last week's high-profile diplomatic scuffle over Israel's housing settlements.

During a cabinet meeting yesterday, the prime minister indicated he was not prepared to heed a U.S. request to halt housing construction on land in Jerusalem that Israel seized after the 1967 Middle East war.

"Our policy toward Jerusalem is the same policy of all Israeli governments in the past 42 years and it has not changed," Netanyahu said. "From our point of view, construction in Jerusalem is like construction in Tel Aviv. These are the things which we have made very clear to the American administration."

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