JERUSALEM -- A sharp escalation of Israeli-Palestinian violence in the West Bank and Gaza left up to six Palestinians dead and culminated in an Israeli airstrike into Gaza, officials said.
In a separate incident, about a dozen masked Palestinians bombed and set fire to the American International School in Beit Lahiya, north of Gaza City, before dawn yesterday, school officials and Palestinian security officials said. The attack caused extensive damage but no injuries.
The officials said that the attackers, believed to be Islamic extremists subscribing to the ideology of al-Qaida, placed several explosive devices at the school. The principal's office and the cafeteria on the first floor of the two-story building were badly burned and computers were stolen, the officials said.
Early yesterday in the West Bank, Israeli troops killed Muhammad Said Abed, 22, in the village of Kufr Dan, near Jenin. An army spokeswoman said that Palestinians had thrown an explosive device and repeatedly fired at the soldiers, who were on a routine operation. The soldiers identified a man standing on the roof of a house "holding a long rifle," the spokeswoman said, and shot him. Witnesses in the village told Reuters that Abed, a member of the Palestinian security forces, had not been involved in the fighting.
Hours later, an Israeli special unit killed three Palestinians traveling in a car in the Jenin refugee camp, Israeli and Palestinian officials said. The army spokeswoman said that the men had fired first and that two rifles and a rocket-propelled grenade were found in the car.
Palestinian medical workers reported that a 17-year-old Palestinian girl was also shot dead in Jenin. The army was checking those reports.
Yesterday evening, three Qassam rockets were launched from the Gaza Strip into Israel, according to the army. One hit a house in the Israeli town of Sderot, close to the Gaza border, and six civilians were treated for shock, the army said. Two rockets landed in open areas.
The army confirmed that it then carried out an airstrike against the cell that launched the rockets. The militant Islamic Jihad group, which claimed responsibility for the rocket attack, said that one of its men was killed in the airstrike. But Palestinian media reports said the man killed was a civilian bystander.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, an aide of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called the Israeli actions "dangerous aggression" that could cause instability "at a time when the Palestinian Authority is making great efforts to maintain a truce."
The school blast happened about 5 a.m. on a day when the building was closed for the weekend. Two night guards said the militants tied their hands and initially kept them on the premises before allowing them to move out of danger. According to one of the guards, Atef al-Beheisi, the masked men told him: "We are the organization of al-Qaida in Palestine, and our swords will be directed at the throats of the infidels."
The second guard, who, fearing for his safety, asked not to be identified and who was at another entrance of the school, said the intruders identified themselves to him as being part of the "Army of Islam."
In recent months, a wave of bombings by suspected Islamic radicals has been directed against Internet cafes, pharmacies, music stores and other recreational centers in the Gaza Strip. Last weekend, an explosion damaged a Christian bookstore in Gaza City.
The American International School in Gaza was established as a local private enterprise and opened shortly before the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000. It promotes U.S.-style education and received $160,000 this year from the State Department to finance scholarships for needy students, according to Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm, a spokeswoman at the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem.
The school, which charges $2,000 to $4,000 a year, is beyond the means of most Gazans and as a result it is not profitable. There are 150 students enrolled at the school, which has a teaching staff of 30, all local Palestinians. The last foreign staff members left about a year ago because of the deteriorating security situation.
Several hours after yesterday's attack, the principal, Ribhi Salem, said: "I am still in a state of shock. How could any Palestinian think it is in the Palestinian interest to carry out such a barbaric act?"
Dr. Eyad Sarraj, a well-known psychiatrist in Gaza and the chairman of the board of the school, said: "This is a clear attack against our country. It is designed to make everybody afraid. This school offers a distinguished education, but they want the students to be illiterate. This is against Islam."
Though privately run, the school falls under the supervision of the Palestinian Authority Education Ministry, which is controlled by Hamas. The U.S. defines Hamas as a terrorist organization and refuses to deal with the Hamas ministers in the Palestinian government.
But the Palestinian deputy minister of education, Muhammad Abu Shkeir, said in a telephone interview from Gaza that his ministry "cooperates fully with the American School, as with all international institutions."