Four Palestinians killed by Israeli forces

Fire traded with militants across Gaza border and in West Bank


JERUSALEM --Israeli forces and Palestinian militants traded fire in the West Bank and across the border of the Gaza Strip yesterday, while a senior Israeli official warned that Israel could send ground forces back into Gaza.

In the West Bank city of Nablus, Israeli soldiers killed three Palestinian militants during an arrest raid that turned into a shootout, the Israeli military said.

In Gaza, Palestinians fired rockets that struck an Israeli military base north of Gaza's border, near the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon, lightly wounding five soldiers. Israel then fired artillery at the launch site in northern Gaza, killing one Palestinian man, Palestinian medical workers said.

Israel said it was prepared to step up action against the Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza.

"If the rocket fire on Ashkelon does not stop, there will be a very fierce response, and no option can be ruled out, including a ground operation," Ehud Olmert, Israel's vice prime minister, told Israeli television.

Israel withdrew its troops from Gaza in September. Since then, Palestinians have continued to fire rockets from Gaza, and Israel has carried out periodic airstrikes.

In recent weeks, Israeli politicians and military leaders have said several times that the military may send troops back into Gaza if the rocket fire does not end.

In Nablus, Israeli troops took up positions outside a house with the intention of arresting militants. Three armed men tried to flee and were fatally shot, the military said.

One of those killed was Bashar Hanani, a local leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who organized a suicide bombing that killed three people at a Tel Aviv market last year, the military said.

In another development, the U.N. Development Program said it would soon begin removing 1.2 million tons of rubble from the 1,500 homes that were torn down after the Jewish settlers left Gaza in August.

None of the rubble has been taken away, preventing Palestinians from building homes and developing other projects in the evacuated Gaza settlements.

The U.N. agency said it hoped to begin removing the rubble within days and intended to have most of it cleared away by June.

The rubble, consisting mostly of concrete and metal, will be ground up and used to pave roads in Gaza, the U.N. agency said. The Israeli government is paying $24.7 million for the project, and Palestinian workers will be hired for the job.

Also, a Tel Aviv court handed down a three-year jail sentence to Tali Fahima, a Jewish Israeli woman who acted as a human shield for a wanted Palestinian militant.

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