Four killed by Israeli strikes in Gaza Strip

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Israeli forces killed four Palestinians in military strikes Sunday in the Gaza Strip, including two teenage boys hit in a botched missile attack on Islamic militants.

In the north, two Palestinian infiltrators killed an Israeli in a village next to the West Bank, as both rhetoric and violence intensified in the approach to Israel's Jan. 28 election.

Palestinians charged that Israel was increasing attacks to distract voters from election-related scandals, while Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is an "obstacle to peace" and must "exit the political stage."

Also, in a rare incident of violence on the Israel-Egypt border, Israeli soldiers shot and killed two infiltrators in the desert south of the Gaza Strip, the military said. One soldier was wounded.

Two boys killed

Hours earlier, Israeli helicopters fired missiles at two vehicles between the refugee camps Khan Younis and Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, witnesses said, aiming for fugitives from the Islamic militant group Hamas. Instead, the explosions killed two teenage boys walking nearby.

Hospital officials identified the dead as Abdallah Najar and Mohammed Karaweh. Another teenager was seriously wounded, they said.

Mahmoud Abu Tahar, a gas station owner, said the missiles were fired toward a taxi and a car when three youngsters were nearby, two on bikes and one walking. "I saw two people dead and another lying nearby in a pool of blood," Abu Tahar said.

After two Palestinian suicide bombers killed 22 bystanders in Tel Aviv last Sunday, Israel stepped up its offensive against Palestinian militants, including what it calls "targeted killings" of suspects, a practice Palestinians denounce as assassination of their leaders and human rights groups criticize as execution without trial.

The military had no immediate comment on the botched raid.

Israeli killed

Just after nightfall, at least one armed Palestinian infiltrated the village of Gadish, in Israel's north, just 2.5 miles from the West Bank border, and killed an Israeli.

After more than an hour, police commander David Siso said two infiltrators had been killed. Israel TV said a police commander ran one over in his vehicle, and the other was killed in a shootout.

Villagers in the area have been building their own fence on the line with the West Bank, criticizing the Israeli government for moving too slowly. Money for the project was donated from overseas. The Israeli government decided last April to fence off the West Bank, but only a few miles of fence have been completed.

Overnight, Israeli forces entered the refugee camp Khan Younis and blew up metal workshops where Israel claims Palestinians make weapons, including rockets and mortars. Factory owners denied the charges and countered that Israel's intention was to destroy the Palestinian economy, already crippled by more than two years of violence. One Palestinian was shot dead, and another killed in northern Gaza as Israeli forces destroyed a house.

In Hebron in the West Bank, a Palestinian was killed when a guard returned fire at gunmen shooting at a fuel truck, the military said. Palestinians said the victim belonged to Hamas.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders traded charges over the renewed violence, which followed an appeal by Arafat to militant groups to halt attacks against Israeli civilians before Israel's elections.

Palestinian leaders accused Sharon of using violence to distract from financial scandals plaguing his party. Sharon claims Arafat is interfering in the election campaign.

Sharon -- steadfast in his refusal to let a Palestinian delegation to attend a London conference, despite British appeals -- said Arafat approves of murdering Israelis as a "political consideration. "Yasser Arafat is an obstacle to peace, and he must exit the political stage," Sharon said.

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