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Violence Escalates in Gaza Strip

By Lee Hockstader

Around the biblical town of Bethlehem, Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen battled with tanks, machine guns, missiles and grenades Monday, rattling windows in nearby Jerusalem and stopping pedestrians in their tracks.

In the Gaza Strip near the Egyptian border, Israeli helicopter gunships fired three wire-guided missiles at a Palestinian Islamic militant, obliterating the pickup truck he was driving and killing him in the latest in a string of assassinations by Israeli forces.

The fatal shooting of an Israeli soldier by a Palestinian sniper touched off the Bethlehem fighting, the Israeli army announced. It was the second such Israeli casualty in as many days. A sniper killed an Israeli soldier late Sunday in an exchange of fire near the Palestinian city of Nablus in the central West Bank.

Even after six months of continuous bloodshed, the crescendo of violence and revenge in Gaza and the West Bank seemed to be building Monday; Palestinians and Israelis alike braced for more.

Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s hard-line government said it has abandoned a policy of restraint that it said had been in force until now and henceforth will show no mercy in striking Palestinian sources of terrorism and violence.

The Palestinians issued a bitter attack on the Bush administration for having “disengaged” from the Middle East conflict, which they said gave Israel a green light to spurn negotiations “and to pursue a policy of escalation.”

Since the Palestinian uprising began last fall, 457 people have been killed -- 375 Palestinians, 63 Israeli Jews and 19 others.

More than 2,000 Palestinian mourners chanted “revenge, revenge” Monday as they marched behind the body of 28-year-old Mohammed Abdelal, who was killed by the Israeli attack in Gaza with missiles guided by wires connecting them to the helicopters from which they are fired. A member of the fighting force of Islamic Jihad, a militant group that has carried out bombings and other attacks against Israeli targets for years, Abdelal had been a prisoner in Israeli and Palestinian jails. His corpse was draped in a red blanket.