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Gaza militant dies in clash as cease-fire tarries

A Palestinian fighter died in a clash with Israeli troops and Israeli aircraft attacked two targets in Gaza on Monday, a day before Israel holds national elections.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Palestinian fighter died in a clash with Israeli troops and Israeli aircraft attacked two targets in Gaza on Monday as mediators tried to broker a long-term cease-fire a day before Israel holds national elections.

The militant group Islamic Jihad said in a statement that one of its fighters was killed overnight in an Israeli airstrike. The Israeli military said troops spotted an armed militant trying to cross the Gaza-Israel border late Sunday and opened fire, after which a bomb belt he was wearing detonated.

Israeli aircraft struck two militant positions in the territory early Monday, in what the military said was retaliation for rocket fire from Gaza on Sunday. No injuries were reported in the aerial attacks.

Riad Malki, foreign minister in the moderate Palestinian government based in the West Bank, charged Monday that Hamas was trying to influence the outcome of Tuesday's Israeli elections by continuing to fire rockets into southern Israel. The moderate Palestinian government is headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, a rival of Gaza's Hamas rulers.

Hamas doesn't want to see a pro-peace government elected because it would pursue a political deal with Abbas, and the Islamic militant group "wants instability in the region," Malki said during a visit to Poland.

Abbas' government is "very much worried" that the rocket attacks might "really push Israeli public opinion and the voters to vote for an anti-peace government," he told reporters in Warsaw.

The violence coincided with stepped-up efforts by the two sides to anchor a shaky cease-fire that ended Israel's devastating three-week offensive, which aimed at halting the rocket fire. Israel unilaterally ended its offensive on Jan. 18, and Gaza's Hamas rulers announced their own cease-fire the same day.

Hamas is seeking to get Gaza's blockaded border crossings open, while Israel wants an end to arms smuggling into the territory and the return of a soldier captured by Hamas in June, 2006. The talks are being mediated by Egypt, as the sides will not communicate directly with each other. A delegation of Hamas leaders from Gaza was in Damascus, Syria, on Monday to consult with the Islamic organization's exiled leadership there, and was expected to travel to Cairo later in the day.

Israel preoccupied with election
As the cease-fire efforts progressed, Israel's leadership was preoccupied with the election. Polls predict a victory for hard-liners, reflecting public sentiment partially linked to anger over the rocket fire and the belief among Israelis that territorial withdrawals like the country's 2005 Gaza pullout have only drawn more violence.

Polls show Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu ahead and the moderate foreign minister, Tzipi Livni of Kadima, running a close second. The polls indicate that parliament is likely to be heavily fragmented, with no clear victory for any one party.

Netanyahu has suggested he will try to jump-start the Palestinian economy while expanding settlements and continuing Israel's military occupation of the West Bank indefinitely.

Saeb Erekat, an Abbas aide, expressed concern about the possible results.

"While we view the election as an internal Israeli matter, every election that would lead to a coalition that will reject a two-state solution and agreements signed and continue settlements — I'm afraid we'll be left with no option to consider them a non-partner for peace," he said.