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Israeli airstrikes kill four militants

Times Staff Writer

Israeli forces killed at least four Palestinian militants in several airstrikes Thursday, including a high-ranking commander of Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian and Israeli officials said.

The stepped-up military operations in Gaza came after a week of high-level diplomacy in Jerusalem intended to restart the stalled peace process.

One airstrike killed Islamic Jihad commander Omar Khatib, his deputy and another fighter with the group as they were driving in central Gaza, Israeli military and Islamic Jihad officials said. Khatib was involved in an attack on a border crossing last month, Israeli officials said.

In a strike in southern Gaza, the Israeli army killed Sharif Brais, a member of an armed faction affiliated with the Islamist group Hamas. An Israeli military spokesman said Brais was about to fire a rocket-propelled grenade at soldiers when he was killed. Although Israel vacated settlements and officially turned over control of Gaza to the Palestinians in 2005, Israeli troops frequently conduct operations to root out militants inside the 140-square-mile coastal enclave. Fighters with Islamic Jihad and other groups often fire rockets toward Israeli towns across the border.

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During the Israeli army incursion into Gaza, several Palestinians were arrested and five were injured in clashes, Palestinian and Israeli officials said.

Israeli forces also arrested another top commander of Islamic Jihad in the West Bank town of Jenin, an Israeli army spokesperson said.

Palestinian factions last month fought a bloody battle for control of Gaza, widening the schism between Hamas, which prevailed, and the more secular Fatah movement, headquartered in the West Bank.

Several high-ranking security officials have lost their jobs in the Fatah-led administration of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas since the Hamas victory in Gaza. On Thursday, national security advisor Mohammed Dahlan submitted his resignation to Abbas.

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Since the Hamas takeover June 14, Israel has sought to undermine the Islamist group -- which controlled the Cabinet that Abbas dismissed -- while propping up the Palestinian Authority president with money and goodwill gestures.

Israel has released or given clemency to hundreds of people affiliated with Fatah. Meanwhile, Israel has put a chokehold on the Gaza economy by closing off the seaside territory to most people and goods.

An Israeli newspaper reported Thursday that the government had allowed the passage of truckloads of weapons from Jordan to the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank, helping to arm one side in the widening intra-Palestinian conflict.

Fatah forces received more than 1,000 automatic weapons earlier this month, according to the newspaper Haaretz.

An Israeli spokeswoman would neither confirm nor deny that the transfer had taken place.

The United States and the European Union have spent millions of dollars to bolster Abbas’ security forces. Thousands of weapons were delivered to Fatah, but Hamas confiscated many of them after taking control of Gaza.

In a report Wednesday to the United Nations Security Council, the U.N.'s Middle East envoy, Michael Williams, called on Israel to stop its incursions and “hand over security control of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority.”

Williams also urged Israel to remove West Bank checkpoints and to stop settlement expansion. Abbas, he said, should try to disarm Palestinian militias and reform Palestinian institutions.

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Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair came to the region this week on his first visit in his capacity as the new Middle East envoy for the so-called quartet focused on reviving the peace process -- the U.S., the U.N., the EU and Russia.

Blair’s visit was followed Wednesday by talks between the foreign ministers of Jordan and Egypt and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem. Egypt and Jordan are among the few Arab countries that recognize Israel.

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roug@latimes.com


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