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Six die in renewed Mideast violence

Islamic Jihad gunmen, Hamas engage Israelis

TEL AVIV -- Israeli soldiers killed two men alleged to be Islamic Jihad militants in the northern West Bank, Islamic Jihad gunmen killed three agricultural workers in Israel's Gaza Strip settlements, and Hamas fighters launched a barrage of rockets at the southern Israeli city of Sderot as the relative calm that has prevailed in the Middle East for the last three months teetered on the verge of collapse yesterday.

In all, six people died in the bloodiest day of violence since a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up outside the Stage nightclub in Tel Aviv in late February, killing himself and five Israelis. Yesterday's clashes and attacks all occurred within a few hours' time, and none appeared to be in direct reaction to the others.

The Israeli military's clash with Islamic Jihad members in the northern West Bank village of Qabatia was part of an intensive effort by Israel to pursue members of the jihadist group who have continued to mount terror attacks against the Jewish state in defiance of a cease-fire by larger militant groups such as Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. Islamic Jihad militants took responsibility for the Stage nightclub blast and, according to Israeli officials, members of the group in the northern West Bank were thwarted last weekend in an effort to infiltrate two suicide bombers into Jerusalem.

Hamas said its barrage of rockets was a response to Israeli security forces' repression on Monday of Palestinians who stoned non-Muslim visitors to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Both incidents were reminiscent of the tit-for-tat violence that has claimed the lives of about 1,000 Israelis and more than 3,300 Palestinians over the past 4 1/2 years.

Israeli security officials said troops who entered Qabatia to arrest Mraweh Ikmail Abu Zeid, the area commander of Islamic Jihad, were fired upon when they surrounded the house where Abu Zeid and other members of the organization were hiding. Two members of the group surrendered in response to an ultimatum, the army said, but Abu Zeid hurled a hand grenade and continued firing at the troops.

After the Israelis encircled the house, they came under fire from an estimated 100 to 200 residents of the area, armed with rocks, Molotov cocktails, and automatic weapons.

In the ensuing four-hour firefight, officials on both sides said, Abu Zeid was killed, as was a man named Naser Zakarneh. Palestinians said Zakarneh was an unarmed Palestinian police officer but the Israelis said he was a gunman affiliated with Islamic Jihad who was shot after he was seen firing at their troops.

Islamic Jihad spokesman Khader Adnan accused the Palestinian Authority of passing information to Israelis that led to the deaths in Qabatia, and called on all Palestinian militant groups to resume fighting with Israel.

''We have strong suspicions that the security coordination" between Israeli and Palestinian authorities that has resumed in recent weeks ''is responsible for this," Adnan said. He said there had been no response to Islamic Jihad demands that the PA say publicly that it was not involved in helping Israel identify jihadis who were planning fresh attacks.

He said six Islamic Jihad members have been killed and dozens arrested in recent weeks. None of the organization's attempts to launch terror attacks on Israelis has succeeded since the attack on the nightclub in February.

Adnan said the period of calm negotiated by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, ''is now in its last days. What happened today is an assassination in cold blood." He said that Iyad Abu al Rob, the leader of Islamic Jihad in the West Bank, was in Qabatia at the time of the clash but was able to flee without being injured.

Palestinians marched through the streets of Jenin, the closest city of Qabatia, shouting ''revenge, revenge" after Abu Zeid's body was brought to the hospital there, the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported.

In the Gaza Strip, Islamic Jihad attacked greenhouses in Gush Katif -- the main area of Israeli settlements slated for evacuation in August -- killing one Chinese and two Palestinians who were working in Israeli settlements. Five other Palestinians were wounded.

Hamas, the most potent of the militias operating outside of Palestinian Authority control, fired five Qassam rockets at the Israeli city of Sderot, Israeli authorities said. A woman and her two daughters were treated for shock, and the roof of at least one house was destroyed. Four other rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel later in the day, but it was unclear what group launched them.

Also in Gaza yesterday, a man whom the army said it believes may have been an Egyptian was shot dead after he slipped across the Egypt-Gaza border in pre-dawn darkness and was spotted approaching Israeli soldiers.

Dan Halutz, the newly installed Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, urged calm on the Israeli side and said that the escalation of violence in Gaza has more to do with internal politics among the Palestinians than with a heightened appetite among Palestinians for conflict with Israelis.

Islamic Jihad stands to be the major loser if the conflict enters a long period of calm.

Charles A. Radin can be reached at radin@globe.com

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