NABLUS, West Bank, (Reuters) – Israeli troops killed three militants in a West Bank gunbattle and another Palestinian in shelling to stop Gaza rocket fire on Thursday in escalating violence that could complicate upcoming elections on both sides.
Five soldiers were wounded in southern Israel by a makeshift rocket launched from the Gaza Strip, where continuing bloodshed has dimmed optimism for peacemaking that was raised by Israel”s withdrawal in September.
Soldiers on an arrest raid in the city of Nablus killed the three militants in a gun battle, including the West Bank commander of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine”s armed wing, Palestinian and Israeli sources said.
The army has stepped up raids since a deadly suicide bombing on Dec. 5, which Palestinian militants claimed as vengeance for earlier killings of gunmen by the army.
In revenge for the Nablus deaths, Islamic Jihad and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades said they fired a makeshift rocket from Gaza that wounded five soldiers on a base in southern Israel. Such attacks rarely cause casualties.
Israel responded with artillery and Palestinian medics said one man had been killed, but the Israelis are already considering whether to use harsher reprisals for rocket fire without sending troops back into Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cannot afford to look soft ahead of a March 28 general election in which polls show he should easily win re-election on the back of the withdrawal from Gaza after 38 years of occupation.
Sharon leads a new centrist party with a platform of ending conflict with the Palestinians following his departure from the right-wing Likud to escape hardliners opposed to quitting any land that Palestinians seek for a state.
More attacks, particularly from Gaza, could strengthen the hand of Sharon”s main challenger from the right, Benjamin Netanyahu. He denounced the Gaza pullout as a surrender to Palestinian militants that would only encourage attacks.
Any dramatic surge in violence could also create problems for a Jan. 5 Palestinian parliamentary election and potentially force a delay.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is already under pressure to postpone the poll due to internal unrest and a split in his rightist ruling Fatah movement that has enhanced the electoral prospects of the Islamic militant group, Hamas.
Calls to delay the Palestinian poll also followed Israel”s announcement on Wednesday it would to ban Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem from voting, citing the participation of Hamas, sworn to destroying Israel.
Hamas and a coalition of other Palestinian factions issued a joint statement on Thursday urging the election be held on schedule and calling on Abbas to find a way to ensure that East Jerusalem residents can vote.
Partly with the election in mind, Hamas has largely followed a 10-month-old truce, but it is due to expire on Dec. 31. Some other factions that have emerged during a five-year uprising have shown less commitment to their promise to ensure calm.
In a fresh sign of internal unrest, gunmen from al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades — part of Fatah — blocked the Gaza Strip”s main north-south highway on Thursday to demand jobs.
Palestinians had welcomed their new freedom on that road since Israeli troops withdrew.