Seven Palestinians, two Israelis killed in 24 hours

In rapidly escalating violence just two weeks before Israel’s general election, seven Palestinians, two of them gunmen who infiltrated an Israeli town, two other Arab attackers and two Israelis were killed in a 24-hour period.

Three of the Palestinians and one of the Israelis were civilians. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz was evasive when asked about reports that he is planning to step up strikes against Palestinian militants. Mofaz said Israel is facing a growing wave of terror, but that there would be “nothing very much out of the ordinary” in Israel’s response.

Palestinian officials have accused Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of escalating military action to deflect attention from corruption allegations that have been hurting his re-election bid.
Two Israeli opinion polls indicated on Monday that Sharon’s Likud party is recovering somewhat from a month-long drop in support.

Palestinian parliamentary speaker Ahmed Qureia said Israel prevented him on Monday from traveling to Ramallah to open a session of the Palestinian Legislative Council. He said he asked to cross two military checkpoints between his hometown of Abu Dis and Ramallah but did not receive authorisation.

“This is also an indicator of the Israeli intention to paralyse the Palestinian Authority and destroy it completely,” Qureia said.

Israeli Foreign Ministry representative Yonatan Peled said he was not aware of a specific request by Qureia to travel to Ramallah, but the ban is in line with a Cabinet decision last week to limit travel by Palestinian officials as part of Israel’s response to suicide bombings in Tel Aviv that killed 23 people.

“There is a ban on entering Ramallah for this session at the moment,” Peled said.

Late on Sunday, Palestinian gunmen attacked the village of Gadish, in Israel’s north, just four kilometres from the West Bank. Just after nightfall, the gunmen sneaked in and killed a 48-year-old Israeli man. One of the attackers was run over by an Israeli army officer, and the second was killed in a shootout. The militant Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility.

It was the second infiltration in the area this month. Residents have been building their own fence on the line with the West Bank, criticising the Israeli government for moving too slowly in erecting a security barrier.

The Israeli government decided last April to fence off the West Bank, but only a few kilometers of fence have been completed so far. Sharon’s main rival, dovish Amram Mitzna of Labour, criticises Sharon for the slow pace of construction and pledges to draw Israel’s border unilaterally if necessary. Also late on Sunday, two infiltrators sneaked across the usually calm Israeli-Egyptian border, barren desert land south of the Gaza Strip.

The military said a patrol came across the three and exchanged fire with them, killing two. An Israeli soldier was also killed.

The Israeli army commander in the area, Brig. Gen. Shmuel Zakai, said it was not immediately clear whether the gunmen were Egyptians or Palestinians. He said it was the sixth incursion in the past year.

Earlier on Sunday, Israeli helicopters fired missiles at two vehicles between the towns of Khan Younis and Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, aiming for Hamas activists.

Instead, the missile explosions killed two Palestinian teenagers walking nearby, and seriously wounded a third.

Also in Gaza on Sunday, Israeli soldiers killed a Palestinian gunmen during a fierce gun battle that erupted when forces raided the Khan Younis refugee camp. In another Gaza operation, troops killed a Palestinian who they said fired on them but who Palestinians said was an unarmed bystander.

In the West Bank town of Hebron, Israeli civilian security guards killed a Hamas activist who fired on their gas tanker. Israel’s security Cabinet decided to step up what it calls “targeted killings” of suspected Palestinian militants in response to last weeks suicide attacks in Tel Aviv. Palestinians denounce the practice as assassination of their leaders and human rights groups criticise it as summary execution without trial.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders traded charges over the renewed violence. Palestinians claimed that Israel was stepping up its operations against Palestinians because of corruption allegations plaguing Sharon and his Likud. The scandals narrowed Sharon’s once comfortable lead, raising the possibility that he might not win re-election. Polls published last week showed Likud dropping from a strong November lead of 40 seats in the 120-member parliament to less than 30.

But a decision last week by Judge Mishael Cheshin to halt Sharon’s news conference, which he said violated an Israeli law forbidding election propaganda in the weeks just before the vote, appeared to rally Likud voters behind their leader. Cheshin chairs a parliamentary committee responsible for ensuring fairness in the campaign.

In a Dahaf Institute poll published in Monday’s Yediot Ahronot newspaper, Sharon’s Likud rose from 28 seats to between 32-33 seats. At the same time, the poll showed Labour dropping from between 21-22 seats to 20. The poll’s margin of error is 4 percentage points. A New Wave poll published in the Maariv newspaper had similar results, with Sharon winning 32 parliamentary seats compared to last week’s 30. The Labour Party, which had 22 seats in the last poll, dropped to 20. The poll’s margin of error is 4,5 percentage points. - Sapa-AP

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