JERUSALEM, AP – Israeli troops killed three Palestinian militants, including the suspected mastermind of a suicide attack, in a West Bank raid just hours after the two sides had reached a tentative new truce deal.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, meanwhile, awaited a showdown with both coalition partners and Gaza pullout opponents as parliament opens its winter session Monday. Sharon is having trouble mustering majority approval for three ministers he wants appointed, and failure could set early elections in motion.
Israeli forces encircled a house in the West Bank town of Qabatiyeh after sundown Sunday in pursuit of two militants linked to a deadly suicide bombing in central Israel last week. The two men opened fire on the troops and tried to flee the house, so the soldiers opened fire and killed them, the army said.
Witnesses and Palestinian security officials identified one of the militants as Jihad Zakarneh, an Islamic Jihad member Israel accuses of planning the bombing. Israeli radio stations reported that the other militant was his assistant.
A third gunman was killed in a separate incident in Qabatiyeh after Israeli forces opened fire on three armed men planting a roadside bomb aimed at a passing Israeli military patrol, the army said.
Islamic Jihad threatened revenge. The Israeli military said three projectiles — apparently homemade rockets — were launched from northern Gaza, but nothing landed in Israel.
On Sunday, officials from both sides had said there was agreement to end days of Palestinian rocket fire and Israeli airstrikes and artillery shelling that had followed days of deadly dueling. It was not clear whether the West Bank raid would scuttle the tentative deal, reached after U.S. intervention.
Repeated fighting since Israel”s Gaza pullout last month have all but buried the hopes for peacemaking that had attended Israel”s first withdrawal from land the Palestinians claim for a future state. The hostilities are also hurting Gaza”s chances of reviving an economy shattered by five years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. With violence simmering, Israel has kept a tight hold on Gaza”s gateways to the outside world.
Israel shut down the main Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt shortly before the withdrawal, and has kept it shut for most of the time since, absent an agreement on how to handle security. It has also occasionally sealed vital cargo and worker crossings between Gaza and Israel, though it reopened two on Sunday that had been shut since the suicide bombing on Wednesday.
Talks on the Rafah crossing resumed Sunday night, but no agreements were announced. Palestinians complain that the closed crossings are causing widespread hardship.
A large faction in Sharon”s governing Likud Party opposed his Gaza withdrawal, and these rebels plan to continue to try to undermine him on Monday when he seeks approval for the Cabinet appointments. Sharon”s junior coalition partner, the Labor Party, has also withheld support for the appointments, eyeing two of the ministries for itself.
Political analysts have speculated that a vote against Sharon on Monday could hasten the end of his tenure, and move up elections, currently scheduled for November 2006.