December 8, 2005
Two Gaza militants, one Israeli killed in flare-upBy Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) - Israel killed two militants in a Gaza air strike on Thursday in an escalating military response to a suicide bombing, and a Palestinian stabbed an Israeli to death at a checkpoint in the occupied West Bank.
Israel also took diplomatic action, suspending talks with the Palestinians on allowing bus convoys between Gaza and the West Bank, a key part of a deal brokered by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and seen as crucial to peace hopes.
Widening its response to a bombing that killed five people at an Israeli shopping mall on Monday, Israel told Washington it was quitting the negotiations until Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas acts against militants, political sources said.
The violence strained an already shaky nine-month-old ceasefire and diminished chances of resuming peace efforts on hold as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon faces a campaign for re-election in a March poll.
An Israeli missile struck a house in the northern Gaza Strip, killing two militants from al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, part of Abbas's Fatah movement, witnesses and medics said.
The men were identified as Iyad Qadas and Iyad al-Najr, senior militants involved in rocket attacks on Israel. The air strike also wounded a third militant, medics said, as well as a four-year-old girl and five other Palestinians.
The latest Israeli strike followed a Gaza air raid that killed another militant leader on Wednesday, drawing vows of revenge and a volley of cross-border rocket strikes.
"Israel is dragging the region into a new cycle of violence and reactions," the Palestinian Interior Ministry said.
At the same time, a Palestinian fatally stabbed an Israeli in the neck at a checkpoint between Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah, security sources said. The attacker was apprehended. No other details were immediately known.
The Palestinian Authority charged that Israel's suspension of talks abrogated the agreement on Gaza border crossings reached under pressure from Rice during a visit in mid-November.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, arriving on Thursday, was expected to try to bring the sides back to the bargaining table.
The deal secured by Rice, who put her own prestige on the line in last month's negotiations, led to Palestinians taking control of the main Gaza-Egypt border crossing on Nov. 26.
It also called for bus convoys to start next week and truck convoys to begin in January using a land link between Gaza and the occupied West Bank. Since then, however, Israel and the Palestinians had been struggling to work out final details.
Access to Gaza is key to strengthening the impoverished Strip's economy and giving a boost to chances for peacemaking following Israel's withdrawal from the coastal territory in September after 38 years of occupation.
Israel's latest moves were a response to Monday's bombing in the coastal town of Netanya.
Sharon, who has abandoned his rightist Likud movement and formed a centrist party to contest the election, is under pressure to carry out tough reprisals. He has approved strikes on militant leaders and a West Bank military clampdown.
Israel killed Mahmud el-Arqan, 29, a commander of the Popular Resistance Committees, in a Gaza strike on Wednesday.
The Netanya bombing was claimed by Islamic Jihad, which said it was avenging Israeli killings of its members. Military sources said Arqan was killed because he collaborated on attacks with Islamic Jihad, a group sworn to Israel's destruction.
The army said it arrested 23 militants, including four Islamic Jihad members, overnight in the occupied West Bank.
Islamic Jihad said Palestinian security forces had arrested 28 of its members since the Netanya bombing.
But Israel wants a broader crackdown. Ahead of a March 28 election, Sharon is facing down rightist foes who accuse him of surrendering to militants with the Gaza pullout, the first removal of settlements on land Palestinians want for a state.
Abbas has condemned the Netanya bombing but has resisted U.S. and Israeli demands to disarm militants, saying it could spark civil war.
(Additional reporting by Corinne Heller and Wafa Amr in Jerusalem)