Israeli Helicopters Launch Missiles Into Gaza City, Killing Three

Israeli soldiers killed three Palestinians on Friday, and helicopter gunships pounded Gaza City with 11 missiles, destroying a metal workshop and damaging a hospital chapel.

The violence came four days ahead of the Israeli general election that is expected to return Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to power. Two of the Palestinians were killed in the West Bank and one in the Gaza Strip.

In an army raid on Beit Hanoun in Gaza, the army called on residents in a northern neighborhood that borders Israel to evacuate their homes and killed a Palestinian who was among hundreds of unarmed demonstrators, Palestinian hospital officials said. More than 20 Palestinians were wounded.

Helicopter gunships periodically fired into the area, used by militants to fire rockets at Israeli towns. Explosions were heard throughout Gaza as hundreds of young Palestinians threw stones at the Israeli forces.

In the West Bank clash, Soad Jawadallah, a 45-year-old woman, was killed and hand grenades were found on her body, the army said. Neighbors said she had been distraught over the killing of her son Ahmed, an activist in the militant Islamic Jihad group, in a targeted Israeli attack three months ago.

The third person killed Friday was an activist in the militant group Hamas.

"After Ahmed was assassinated, she said many times she can't endure life without him and she hoped she would be a martyr as soon as possible to join him in the other life," said a neighbor, Sameh Shweiki.

Jawadallah's husband insisted his wife was an innocent bystander.

The clash took place Friday morning near the near the Jewish settlement of Shavei Shomron, close to the West Bank city of Nablus. The military said four Palestinians attacked an army patrol.

In Beit Hanoun, witnesses said they saw Palestinian militants detonate a bomb alongside an Israeli tank and set it on fire. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack. The army said militants had detonated three bombs, but no one was injured in the explosions.

Also Friday, Israeli helicopter gunships fired 11 missiles at Gaza City, wrecking a metal workshop the army said turned out crude rockets and mortars. One missile also damaged a 19th-century Anglican chapel of Ahli Arab Hospital, punching holes in the roof and the floor near the altar and dusting a painting of the Virgin Mary with debris.

"This is an act of terrorism against our church," said Anglican Bishop Riah Abu Assal. "Its location next to the hospital is well known. There is no room for mistakes, and they (Israeli military officials) didn't even bother to issue a statement to express their regret."

The military said it was checking whether pieces of a misfired missile hit the chapel.

Palestinians said six people were wounded in the missile strikes, though none of the 40 patients at Ahli hospital were harmed.

Hamas militants responded by firing three short-range Qassam rockets at the Israeli desert town of Sderot, about 3 miles from the Gaza fence. One of the rockets left a hole the size of a truck tire in the yard of a home and lightly injured a woman hanging laundry, police said.

Visiting the scene, Sharon said: "The people here are confident and have strong endurance to bear difficult situations. We haven't lost hope and even in this situation, we will prevail."

Sharon is running on a platform of military reprisals for Palestinian attacks. He is favored over his dovish opponent, Amram Mitzna, who calls for a resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians and withdrawal from most of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip.

In Rafah in the Gaza Strip, Palestinians said the army demolished 13 homes along the Egyptian border.

In Cairo, Palestinian militant leaders opened talks Friday that Egypt hopes will result in a Palestinian pledge to halt attacks against Israeli civilians for one year as a way to restart Mideast peace efforts.

Participants include Hamas , Islamic Jihad, Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah movement, and the Syrian-backed radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and the Saaqa faction. The talks will continue Saturday.

The talks, hosted by Egypt, are the first to bring so many Palestinian factions together in 20 years.