Four Palestinians Killed, Five Israeli Soldiers Hurt in West Bank and Gaza Raids

Israeli troops killed four Islamic militants in gun battles in the West Bank (search) and Gaza Strip (search) early Thursday, the army said. Five soldiers were wounded in the fighting.

In one clash, in the Bureij refugee camp in Gaza, soldiers surrounded a hideout and a gun battle erupted. After fighting died down, the bodies of two Palestinian militants -- one from Hamas (search) and one from Islamic Jihad (search) -- were found in the area, Palestinian sources said. Five soldiers were wounded, the army said.

In the West Bank city of Hebron, Israeli troops backed by tanks and jeeps surrounded a one-story building in a field where an Islamic Jihad militant was hiding, the army said. A fierce firefight erupted.

Army doctors entered the building and found two dead gunmen, the army said. A third was taken to a Jerusalem hospital with critical injuries. Forces were searching the Hebron neighborhood for other militants.

Initial information indicated that both of the dead were from Islamic Jihad. The names of the four men killed Thursday were not immediately made public.

The two raids are part of Israel's ongoing attempt to hunt down militants from Islamic Jihad and Hamas, the two groups responsible for most of the attacks on Israelis since violence erupted three years ago.

Meanwhile, 27 Israeli air force pilots drew wall-to-wall condemnation Thursday for refusing to carry out air strikes in the Palestinian areas. In a letter to the air force commander, the group said Wednesday that it would refuse to participate in such attacks, denouncing them as "illegal and immoral."

The air force has played a major role in Israel's war on Palestinian militants, with helicopters and warplanes frequently carrying out attacks.

In the past three years, some 140 Palestinian militants have been killed in targeted raids, according to Palestinian medical officials, though that also includes militants killed resisting arrest. They say more than 100 bystanders have also died.

The unprecedented rebellion by the pilots, members of an admired elite, revived a debate on targeted killings, with public opinion going strongly against the pilots.

"Their reasons are lame and their conclusions impossible," commentator Nahum Barnea wrote on the front page of the Yediot Ahronot daily. "There is not and cannot be an army a la carte. Let them either take back their immature letter or be discharged from army service."

The air force commander, Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz, accused the rebels of meddling in politics and said they would be punished.

Nine of the 27 are on active duty, and the Haaretz daily said the air force plans to dismiss them. The group is led by Yiftach Spector, a reserves brigadier general in his 60s, Haaretz said.

Dozens of reserve soldiers in ground forces have opted to go to prison rather than serve in the West Bank and Gaza. However, they are a tiny minority, and large numbers of Israeli high school graduates continue to volunteer for combat units.

In the past month, in response to a Hamas homicide bombing that killed 23 bus passengers in Jerusalem, Israel intensified its campaign of targeted attacks, killing 13 Hamas members and six bystanders in air strikes in Gaza City.

The target of an air strike earlier this month, Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, emerged from seclusion Wednesday for a news conference at a Gaza City mosque. Yassin, who was lightly wounded in the Sept. 6 attack, said his group would not disarm or agree to a ceasefire. He also lashed out at U.S. President George W. Bush, accusing the United States of having declared war on Islam.

Hamas' rejection of a truce undercuts efforts by Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Ahmed Qureia to put together a government that will end the fighting and make progress on a so-called U.S.-backed "road map" to peace.