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Israeli airstrike: Israeli soldier and two Palestinian militants killed

Israeli missiles pulverized a car in Gaza, killing two top militants, drawing threats of retaliation and further weakening Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in his efforts to restore calm and take firm control of the volatile seaside territory.

Early Wednesday, an Israeli soldier was killed during an arrest operation in a West Bank village near Jenin, the army spokesman said. A suspected militant had surrendered to troops when shots were fired from a field, hitting one of the soldiers in the head and killing him, the army said.

In Tuesday's airstrike in Gaza, the target was an Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades leader said to be responsible for several deadly attacks over the past two years, the army said. The other was a rocket expert, Hamas and the military said.

The fresh flare-up of violence hurt hopes for a return to peacemaking in the wake of Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in September. The sides have failed to capitalize on the momentum for peace created by the Israeli pullout, and militant reprisals for Tuesday's killings could further erode the atmosphere.

The killing of an Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank last month was followed by a suicide bombing in the Israeli city of Hadera that killed five people.

In the past, armed groups have fired homemade rockets at Israeli border towns in response to such killings, drawing Israeli reprisals that have been particularly harsh since the Israeli pullout from Gaza.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Army Radio that Israel made it clear that after the pullout, "if the terrorist organizations continued to fire rockets at Israeli territory the response would be severe," but "since the Gaza withdrawal the firing of Qassams has not stopped."

In the Tuesday airstrike, missiles slammed into a car carrying the two militants, Hassan Madhoun of the Al Aqsa and Fawzi Abu Kara of Hamas, turning it into a twisted ball of metal scraps.

Just minutes earlier, Abbas' convoy had traveled on the road on his way to Gaza City, Abbas' bodyguards said. Abbas is locked in a struggle with the militants for control of Gaza and has tried, unsuccessfully so far, to stop attacks against Israel.

Madhoun helped plan three bombing attacks that killed 20 Israelis since 2004, including a blast in Israel's Ashdod port, the army said. Hamas and the military said Abu Kara was skilled in the manufacture of rockets and explosives.

Hamas and Al Aqsa, a violent offshoot of Abbas' ruling Fatah movement, threatened revenge. "This is an open war," said Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri. "They (the Israelis) are going to pay a heavy price for their crimes."

Yossi Beilin, head of the dovish Israeli opposition Yahad party, charged in an AP interview that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is provoking a new cycle of violence to ensure that "the withdrawal from Gaza was the last political move" and will be no further such steps. The airstrikes came on the eve of Eid al-Fitr, a major Muslim holiday marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. It was not clear whether the proximity of the holiday would temper the militants' response, amid concern the Palestinian public would blame them, at least in part, for ruining the celebrations by inviting Israeli retaliation.

Hamas and Al Aqsa did not say an informal 9-month-old truce was off, but have insisted on the right to respond to Israeli strikes, a position Abbas has dismissed as unacceptable. Since the truce deal, Hamas and Al Aqsa have refrained from carrying out attacks in Israel, while Islamic Jihad has been responsible for four suicide attacks. Also Tuesday, Israeli Cabinet ministers approved the deployment of European inspectors at the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, a breakthrough after weeks of slow-moving talks and a major step toward giving the Palestinians freedom of movement without Israeli controls for the first time in four decades, reports the AP. I.L.