Israeli gunners fired missiles from a helicopter into a moving car Sunday night, killing three Palestinian militants on the deadliest of three days of violence since the two sides agreed to a weeklong "time of calm" to shore up a failing cease-fire.
Palestinian officials reported the attack in the West Bank hours after two Palestinian gunmen, including an officer in Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's security forces, died in a shootout with the Israeli army as they were trying to plant explosives near an army base.
The Palestinian officer killed in the shootout was identified as Jamal Defaleh, 35. The officer's moonlighting as a guerrilla underscores the skepticism Arafat faces as he tries to persuade Israeli leaders that he is doing everything possible to enforce the U.S.-brokered cease-fire.
But the helicopter attack indicated that Israel's self-declared policy of restraint is wearing thin. The airborne gunners fired six missiles, incinerating a Mazda sedan and killing three members of the Islamic Jihad guerrilla group, Palestinian officials said.
One of them, Mohammed Besharat, was on Israel's wanted list, Palestinian officials said. His group has been resisting the June 13 cease-fire--the most promising step yet to end a 9-month-old Palestinian uprising that has ignited the worst Middle East fighting in years.
Islamic Jihad and Hamas militants held a rally in the West Bank on Sunday night, at which both groups vowed to renew attacks inside Israel. In a leaflet the two groups issued, they said they will not honor the cease-fire with Israel.
Israel is known to have targeted and killed a number of Palestinian militants suspected in attacks on Israelis. Palestinians said Sunday's attack was the second of its kind in a week; on June 24, a member of Arafat's Fatah group died when a public pay phone blew up as he was using it.
Arafat's media advisor, Nabil abu Rudaineh, said Israel's practice of targeting and killing Palestinian militants "will lead to the collapse" of the cease-fire.
Aside from Sunday's killings, which all took place near the town of Jenin, the cease-fire has been undermined by disagreement over its initial steps.
Under Arafat's interpretation, he is obliged merely to make a good-faith effort to halt violence for a week. Sunday, by his count, was the fourth day of a seven-day trial that the two sides agreed to Thursday with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
That one-week interval is to be followed by a six-week "cooling off" that would then lead to a renewal of full-scale peace talks.
But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Sunday that the seven-day countdown had not yet begun and cannot begin until Arafat manages "an absolute halt--not half, nor temporary--but an absolute halt to terrorism and violence and incitement."
As the peace effort faltered, Israeli warplanes took aim Sunday at another foe. They struck a Syrian army radar post in Lebanon in retaliation for an attack by Syrian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas Friday that left two Israeli soldiers wounded.
The Israeli air attack wounded two Syrian soldiers and one Lebanese soldier in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. It triggered an artillery duel between Hezbollah guerrillas and Israeli soldiers along the Israel-Lebanon border in which a Lebanese farmer was wounded.
Israel waited two days after Powell's departure to strike back at the Syrians. It now faces the task of quieting two fronts at once--its northern border and the restive Palestinian territories.
More than 600 people have been killed since the Palestinian uprising began. Daily violence has persisted, though on a diminished scale, since CIA Director George J. Tenet got both sides to agree to the cease-fire plan and since Powell tried last week to refine its timetable.
Arafat told Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres on Saturday that he has ordered his people to stop all forms of violence but is meeting resistance. To make the cease-fire more palatable to them, he said, Israel should lift security blockades on Palestinian towns.
"You need to help me take control of the situation," the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot quoted Arafat as telling Peres during a three-hour meeting in Lisbon.
"This cannot be done without clear orders to your commanders, without arresting those planning terrorist attacks," Peres was quoted as replying. "We want seven days without funerals, without ambulances, without tears."
Peres said Israel demanded "absolute quiet." Arafat called the demand unreasonable.
"Only the dead have absolute quiet," the Palestinian leader was quoted as saying. "One hundred percent effort must be made to revive the peace, and this is being made."
Israeli officials said the participation of a Palestinian officer in Sunday's attack undermined Arafat's claim. Israel Radio and Palestinian sources first said the slain officer was part of Arafat's army, the National Security Forces.
A senior advisor to Sharon said that later intelligence identified him as a member of Arafat's elite Presidential Guard and as its liaison with the Hamas guerrilla group.
"Arafat's most trusted men are still running the intifada," said the advisor, Raanan Gissin. "What happened today shows that he is not giving clear and unequivocal orders of the kind that Colin Powell was demanding."