JERUSALEM – In a West Bank gun battle, Israeli soldiers shot dead two Palestinians who were preparing to plant explosives Sunday along a road, security officials said, part of the ongoing violence that has jeopardized a Mideast cease-fire.
The militant Islamic group Hamas said both men belonged to one of its guerrilla units. Hamas has refused to recognize the truce and says it will continue to carry out attacks against Israeli targets.
The June 13 truce has helped reduce the overall level of fighting, but has not brought an end to the nine months of conflict. The Israelis have insisted on seven days of complete calm before the two sides move to a "cooling off" period of six weeks.
Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Shaath said a cooling off period, monitored by international observers, is the only way to "guarantee serious movement back to the peace process."
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, however, has said there has yet to be a single day of calm since the cease-fire was declared, and he is opposed to bringing foreign monitors into the region. If the two sides reach the cooling off period, they could begin to take steps such as an easing of Israeli restrictions on the movements of Palestinians.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat met Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres this weekend at the Socialist International meeting in Lisbon, Portugal, but no breakthroughs were announced.
"Especially in these difficult times when things are so problematic we need to make every effort to stop the killing and murder and I told this to Arafat in the clearest way possible," Peres told Israel radio.
Palestinian security officials insist they are trying to prevent attacks against Israeli targets, but say the complete cessation sought by Israel is unrealistic.
"There is no country that can guarantee a 100 percent cease fire; however, it can provide 100 percent effort," Gaza security chief Amin al-Hindi told the Voice of Palestine Radio.
Palestinian witnesses said a gun battle broke out early Sunday between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants near the West Bank town of Jenin.
Col. Efie Cohen, an Israeli brigade commander in the area, said Palestinians opened fire on his soldiers. The Israeli troops returned fire and pursued the militants, several of whom fled into Palestinian-controlled territory. Two, however, were killed, and explosive devices were found on their bodies, the colonel said.
Hamas faxed a statement to The Associated Press office in Beirut, Lebanon, identifying the men as Hamas guerrilla fighters, Mahmoud Suleiman Khalil and Jamal Deifollah Hassan.
Palestinian security officials said the latter had been serving as a Palestinian policeman. The two men were planning to set off a roadside bomb as Jewish settlers passed by later in the day in a procession, the officials said.
In other West Bank violence Sunday, the Israeli army said shots were fired from the Palestinian village of Sheikh Shiban at an Israeli bakery truck driven by a 26-year-old Israeli Arab. The driver was injured lightly in the leg from the attack.