Israel kills at least 2 militants in West Bank

Raid sets off renewed rocket firings


JERUSALEM -- Israeli troops killed at least two Islamic Jihad militants in a raid in the West Bank yesterday, hours after the group agreed to halt rocket attacks on Israel from the Gaza Strip.

The killings set off renewed rocket firings. Three rockets were launched from the Gaza Strip at Israel, but they caused no damage or casualties, the military said.

The clashes are the worst since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip last month, and they are threatening to unravel a truce declared in February. Islamic Jihad threatened in a statement to attack Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip, and it called on Palestinian factions to join forces in confronting the Israelis.

The surge of violence began early last week, when Israel killed a top Islamic Jihad commander in the West Bank. The group responded with rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip and a suicide bombing in the Israeli city of Hadera that killed five people. The Israelis hit back with airstrikes in the Gaza Strip that killed nine Palestinians, militants and civilians.

Yesterday evening, Israeli troops in the West Bank surrounded the hide-out of an Islamic Jihad militant in Qabatiya, the hometown of the suicide bomber who struck in Hadera. Two militants were killed in exchanges of fire. One was identified as Jihad Zakarneh, accused by Israel of planning the Hadera bombing.

Militants fought troops near the surrounded house, and the Israelis used helicopter gunships, according to Palestinians at the scene. Israel Radio said a third militant was killed by troops as he tried to plant an explosive charge. At least seven Palestinians were wounded, two critically, hospital officials said.

Islamic Jihad responded with a statement threatening to attack Israeli towns near Gaza and called on "Palestinian factions to be united to confront the Zionist campaign against the Islamic Jihad and the Palestinian people in the West Bank."

The raid was part of an Israeli army campaign against Islamic Jihad that was launched after the Hadera bombing.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said yesterday that the operations against Islamic Jihad would continue until it "can no longer carry out suicide bombings."

The raid followed a return to calm in the Gaza Strip after several days of militant rocket attacks and Israeli airstrikes, artillery barrages and sonic booms that rattled windows in Palestinian neighborhoods.

Palestinian officials said that an understanding had been reached to stop the hostilities, although Israeli officials declined to confirm any official agreement.

"Both sides have agreed to stop attacks," said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Khaled al-Batsh, an Islamic Jihad leader in Gaza, said, "If the enemy stops its attacks, our commitment to calm will be maintained."

Palestinian factions agreed early this year to an informal cease-fire, known in Arabic as tahdia, or calm, that has sharply reduced violence after five years of fighting. However Islamic Jihad has carried out four suicide bombings since the truce was announced, calling the attacks responses to Israeli violations.

Militant groups planned a meeting late yesterday at an undisclosed location, where they were expected to endorse the latest truce, but the Israeli operation in the West Bank put that in doubt.

At stake for the Palestinians is the economic survival of Gaza. With violence simmering, Israel has kept a tight hold on the exits from the coastal strip, noting security concerns.

Joel Greenberg writes for the Chicago Tribune. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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