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5 Militants Nabbed in West Bank Raid; Israeli Soldier Killed

Israeli troops surrounded two houses in a West Bank town Thursday, setting off a fierce gunbattle with Palestinian militants that left one soldier dead and forced the surrender of five wanted men.

It was Israel's second strike against Palestinian militants this week. Opinion polls showed the first incursion — a dramatic prison raid that captured six militants Tuesday — boosted voter support for acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert before the March 28 elections.

Thursday's shootout in Jenin erupted as soldiers demanded the surrender of five fugitives from Islamic Jihad and the Fatah-linked Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. The army said one wanted man ran out of a building early during the raid, and the other four surrendered later. An Israeli soldier was shot to death.

Students threw stones at the Israeli soldiers, and an army bulldozer tried to disperse the crowd. Troops took over homes in the area, fighting with gunmen.

The Islamic militant group Hamas, meanwhile, wrapped up coalition talks Thursday after failing to secure the support of other parties, and said it would form a government of Hamas politicians, technocrats and independents — a composition likely to deepen the international isolation of the Islamic militants.

Hamas said it planned to present its Cabinet to the Palestinian parliament for approval Monday. However, it first needs the go-ahead from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is to meet with the Islamic militants over the weekend.

Abbas is expected to ask the Islamic militants to rework their government program, said an official close to Abbas, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the content of such meetings with reporters. Abbas is to tell Hamas its hard-line platform is too vague and thus unacceptable, the official said.

Hamas cannot seek parliament approval unless Abbas has signed off on the new Cabinet. The Islamic militants won an absolute majority in parliament in January elections.

Hamas has refused to moderate its views, despite threats by the U.S. and Europe that they will cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority unless Hamas recognizes Israel, renounces violence and accepts existing peace deals.

The main sticking point in coalition talks has been Hamas' refusal to recognize a unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence that was issued in 1988 and included a recognition of Israel.

Israel is leading efforts to isolate a Hamas government, an Islamic group sworn to Israel's destruction. Israel has already suspended monthly transfers of tax revenue it collects for the Palestinian Authority. Israel says it fears the money — which totaled $740 million last year — would reach the militants.

The World Bank warned Thursday that cutting of international aid could cause the Palestinian economy to contract by 27 percent and income levels to drop by 30 percent this year alone — levels comparable to a deep depression. Unemployment would reach nearly 50 percent by 2008, with three-quarters of the population living in poverty, defined as living off less than about $2 a day, the report said.

The international community donated about $1.3 billion to the Palestinians last year. But Western donors, who provide the bulk of the assistance, have threatened to cut off the money if the incoming Hamas government does not renounce violence.

Hamas has so far rejected global calls to moderate its views, and instead has turned to the Arab and Islamic world for financial aid. Iran has pledged to help a Hamas-led government.

The militants captured in the raid on the Jericho jail included Ahmed Saadat, the suspected mastermind of the 2001 assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister. The operation had wide backing in Israel, but some questioned its pre-election timing. Olmert has rejected allegations he ordered the raid to win the support of hard-line voters.

Olmert's centrist Kadima Party had been sliding in the polls recently to fewer than 40 of 120 parliament seats. Although the party remained far ahead of its closest rivals, its dip had raised speculation that a Kadima-led coalition would not be strong enough to implement its vision of West Bank withdrawals.

A poll by the independent Geocartography Institute showed Kadima would win 42-43 seats, up from 38 last week, said Avi Degani, head of the polling agency. The poll of 500 people was conducted Wednesday and had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Other polls also had Kadima rising, but not passing the 40-seat mark.

Some pollsters and analysts attributed the rise to the Jericho raid. But Degani said the gains could not necessarily be attributed to the raid, because Geocartography had similar results in a survey conducted Monday — a day before the operation.