Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Saturday urged militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad to halt attacks against Israeli civilians in advance of Israel's general election this month, saying such acts of violence harm the Palestinian cause.
Arafat, who is in effect under house arrest in his compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah, has made similar calls in the past, but Israel has always considered them narrow and conditional. Israeli officials dismissed Saturday's statement, which was issued by the Palestinian Authority Cabinet, as cynical and insincere.
"So now he's saying that for tactical reasons, it's a good idea to stop killing Israelis -- that is, for the moment," said Raanan Gissin, a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "This isn't a real call for the cessation of violence or a real appeal to give up the strategy of terror."
Sharon's government holds Arafat responsible for hundreds of shooting attacks and bombings by Palestinian militants that have taken place since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in September 2000.
In the past, the ebb and flow of violence have exerted considerable influence on Israelis, who will vote Jan. 28. Pollsters say a sense of insecurity arising from major attacks tends to drive voters to the right.
Meanwhile Saturday, violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip claimed the lives of at least three Palestinians. A 20-year-old man was shot dead by Israeli troops in a refugee camp outside the northern West Bank city of Nablus. In Gaza, a 17-year-old, described by neighbors as a member of Islamic Jihad, died of injuries he suffered in a blast as he was apparently trying to assemble explosives in his home. And later, a man was killed by a tank shell after dozens of tanks backed by helicopter gunships raided the town of Khan Yunis, witnesses said.
Also in Gaza, military sources described an incident Saturday evening that was commonplace in its broad outlines yet remarkable because of the ages of those involved. Two Palestinian youths armed with knives managed to slip into the Jewish settlement of Netzarim -- one of them 13 years old, the other 8.
After breaking into a rabbi's house, one of the boys was shot and slightly wounded by Israeli troops, and both were captured, the army said.
The incident was reminiscent of one earlier this month in which three young Palestinian assailants -- two of them 15 and one 16 -- were shot dead by troops as they tried to sneak into another Gaza settlement.
Palestinians say the growing involvement of teenagers and children in attacks against Israelis is a barometer of the despair and suffering in crowded, impoverished Gaza after nearly 28 months of fighting.
Israeli officials, however, say Palestinian children are systematically inculcated with teachings that extol the glory of martyrdom, leading some youngsters to place themselves in deadly danger in a misguided attempt to prove their dedication to the Palestinian cause.
In the clash outside Nablus, at least six Palestinians were shot and wounded in addition to the 20-year-old man who was killed. Witnesses said a crowd in the Askar refugee camp was hurling stones and firebombs at an Israeli armored vehicle when the troops opened fire.
The army considers firebombs a potentially lethal threat, and soldiers have been given the authority to shoot anyone who is armed with one. Several children have been among the Palestinians killed in this manner in recent months.
Nablus, like most other cities in the West Bank, is under Israeli military control, patrolled by troops, tanks and armored vehicles. Its Palestinian residents are subject to strict curfews that periodically keep them confined to their homes and tightly restrict their movements the rest of the time.
Israel sent its forces into the West Bank's population centers last year in response to a series of suicide bombings by Palestinian militant groups that killed scores of Israelis. The military occupation, coupled with intensive army manhunts for Palestinian militant leaders, has considerably reduced the number of attacks inside Israel in recent months but has failed to halt them completely.
Saturday's statement by the Palestinian Authority Cabinet, whose policy decisions are all personally approved by Arafat, the authority's president, denounced "all acts of violence that target Palestinian and Israeli civilians."
"Attacks against Israeli civilians have badly damaged our cause in Israeli public opinion and in the international arena," the statement said. "As the Israeli election approaches, we appeal to our people to practice self-restraint."