Israel and the Palestinians agreed Sunday to halt their latest round of rocket attacks and airstrikes, officials said, but the deal threatened to fall through when Israeli forces killed three Islamic Jihad militants in the West Bank.
Israeli forces circled a house in the West Bank town of Qabatiyeh after sundown Sunday and killed Jihad Zakarne, an Islamic Jihad member accused by Israel of planning a deadly suicide bombing last week, and another militant, witnesses and Palestinian security officials said.
Israel Radio reported Israeli troops killed a third Palestinian who was planting a bomb nearby. The Israeli military had no comment.
Islamic Jihad responded with a statement threatening to hit Israeli towns near Gaza and called on “Palestinian factions to be united to confront the Zionist campaign against the Islamic Jihad and the Palestinian people in the West Bank.”
Palestinians reported hearing small explosions in northern Gaza, but the military said nothing landed in Israel.
Cycle of retaliation
Militants in Gaza have retaliated for such Israeli raids in the West Bank by firing homemade rockets at Israel, triggering Israeli retaliation. Since the bombing in the central town of Hadera, Israel has targeted Islamic Jihad militants in air strikes, killing eight Palestinians — three of them bystanders — and fired artillery shells at rocket launching areas in Gaza.
It was just such an escalation that the informal agreement was designed to stop.
Militant groups planned a meeting late Sunday at an undisclosed location, where they were expected to endorse the latest truce, but the Israeli operation in the West Bank put that in doubt.
At stake for the Palestinians is the economic survival of Gaza. With violence simmering, Israel has kept a tight hold on the exits from the coastal strip, citing security concerns.
Sharon aide: Al-Qaida elements in Gaza
The main Rafah crossing from Gaza to Egypt has been closed for most of the time since Israel withdrew from Gaza last month without an agreement on how to handle security. Vital cargo and worker crossings with Israel also have been closed periodically.
The announcement of an informal truce came as Danny Arditi, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s counterterrorism adviser, said al-Qaida operatives apparently entered Gaza last month during several days of chaos following Israel’s pullout.
“The breaching of the border ... apparently allowed al-Qaida and all kinds of international Jihad elements to enter the Gaza Strip,” Arditi told Army Radio.
Palestinian Interior Ministry spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khoussa denied the allegations and charged that Israel was trying to put pressure on the Palestinian Authority. “There is no sign of any presence and existence of al-Qaida in Gaza Strip,” he said.
During his weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, Sharon promised “severe” retaliation if attacks on Israel continue.
U.S. presses for halt to violence
Palestinian Interior Ministry officials said Sunday the militants had agreed to halt the rocket fire, and Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a top adviser to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, said Israel and the Palestinians agreed to stop the latest hostilities after U.S. intervention.
“Both sides have agreed to stop the escalation,” he said.
An Israeli government official said an understanding apparently had been reached for both sides to halt the fighting, though no official agreement was in place. The official said Israel would stop its operations when the Palestinians stop their attacks.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Stewart Tuttle said American officials were not involved in brokering the agreement but noted the U.S. has urged both sides to stop the violence.