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Air raid kills 2 Palestinians; Israeli slain in the West Bank

Strife intensifies after a mall blast; road talks halted

JERUSALEM -- An Israeli air raid killed two Palestinians yesterday in the Gaza Strip. Also yesterday, a Palestinian man fatally stabbed an Israeli soldier in the West Bank, intensifying violence after a bombing at an Israeli mall.

Israel also suspended talks to open a road linking the West Bank and Gaza, a week before the ''safe passage" for Palestinians was to open.

This drew angry criticism from the Palestinians, who accused Israel of violating an agreement brokered by the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.

Israel promised tough retaliation for the suicide attack Monday at the mall, which killed five people in the Mediterranean coastal city of Netanya.

An Israeli aircraft launched missiles yesterday at a group of militants from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, holed up in a house near the northern Gaza town of Jebaliya, Palestinian witnesses and health officials said.

The strike killed Iyad Nasser, 27, and Iyad Qaddas, 21, hospital officials said. Six others were wounded, including an 11-year-old girl, hospital officials said.

The army said that Qaddas was involved in numerous attacks on Israelis, including bombings.

A spokesman for Al Aqsa, a group linked to the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement, vowed revenge, and Palestinian officials said Israel would bear responsibility. On Wednesday, a separate Israeli air raid killed a militant in southern Gaza.

''This Israeli action is going to sabotage the efforts made by the Palestinian Authority to maintain calm and to revive the peace process," said an Interior Ministry spokesman, Tawfik Abu Khoussa.

In other violence, a Palestinian stabbed an Israeli soldier in the neck and killed him near the Qalandia checkpoint, a main crossing point for West Bank Palestinians entering Jerusalem.

The attacker, a Palestinian man from a village near Ramallah, was arrested. The blindfolded man was seen sitting on a bench inside the vehicle before he was taken away. Young soldiers sat nearby, consoling each other.

The army closed the checkpoint, where thousands of Palestinians cross every day, while allowing people lined up to return to homes in the West Bank.

The violence was viewed as likely to fuel further calls by Israel on the Palestinians to crack down on Palestinian militants.

Abbas, who has resisted calls to rein in the gunmen, has vowed to arrest those responsible for the Netanya bombing.

Islamic Jihad, which reportedly carried out Monday's bombing, said Palestinian security forces have arrested 80 to 100 of its members. Palestinian officials confirmed only 17 arrests.

Despite the crackdown, Khaled Batsh, an Islamic Jihad leader in Gaza, urged members not to fight the Palestinian forces. He said the group was working with the Palestinian leadership to end the crisis.

Stepping up the pressure, Israel has suspended talks to open up a road link to ferry Palestinians between Gaza and the West Bank, an Israeli official said Thursday. He spoke on condition of anonymity since he was not authorized to discuss such matters with the media.

The ''safe passage" agreement was included in a deal brokered by Rice last month that was intended to help rejuvenate Gaza following Israel's withdrawal from the territory in September.

The movement of Palestinian people and goods between the two areas is considered vital to the Palestinian economy. The link was to have opened Dec. 15. A similar arrangement was in effect for a year but was canceled after violence erupted in late 2000.

The Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, called the Israeli move a ''flagrant violation" of the US-brokered agreement. ''I wonder why would the Israelis do such a thing? We condemned the Netanya attack. What's the linkage between that and the Gaza convoy?" Erekat said.

Officials at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv declined comment.

A UN report said yesterday that the number of Palestinians living below the poverty line, about $2.20 a day, has climbed to almost two-thirds, despite the Gaza pullout and a slowdown in fighting this year.

''While progress on the political front is understood as the only means to ultimately alleviate poverty and suffering, as yet there has been no sign of humanitarian improvement," said the report, by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

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