Israeli forces kill 2 Palestinian activists in West Bank ambush

ISRAELI FORCES KILLED two Palestinian fighters Thursday during a West Bank arrest raid, riddling their car with bullets when it tried to run a roadblock outside the town of Jenin, the army said.

The shooting, part of a recent increase in Israeli raids in Palestinian towns, threatened to inflame tensions between the two sides, which agreed to a ceasefire nine months ago. The truce has been repeatedly violated by both sides, though the level of violence remains far lower than before the agreement.

The army said the incident Thursday began when an Israeli force seeking to arrest two wanted fighters set up a checkpoint outside Jenin. When the fighters tried to run the roadblock, the force opened fire and the vehicle ran off the road and flipped over, the army said.

An Associated Press picture showed the two young fighters dead in their car, their bodies riddled by bullets.

Mohammed Turkman, a Palestinian who witnessed the attack, said that after the car ran off the road the Israelis got out of their truck, ran down to the car, and shot the fighters again, before returning to the truck and driving off.

Palestinian security officials identified the slain men as Mohammed Zaid, 18, and Ahmed Abahri, 18, fighters with the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a group affiliated with the ruling Fateh movement. Al Aqsa threatened to retaliate.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the killing and warned of the “serious collapse” of the ceasefire.

“I hope that the Israeli election campaign will not be marked by more Palestinian blood,” he said hours after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to hold new elections early next year.

The Israeli elections and a Palestinian parliamentary elections scheduled for January are expected to freeze all peace efforts between the two sides for several months.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas hopes to capitalise on Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip to beat back a challenge from the Islamic Hamas group.

However, Abbas has had difficulty establishing his authority and bringing order to the volatile territory. Defying a Palestinian Authority ban on public displays of weapons, about 1,000 Al Aqsa fighters brandishing assault rifles and rocket launchers marched through Gaza City on Thursday and vowed to hold on to their arms.

The fighters fired into the air while their leaders made speeches insisting on the right to bear arms against Israel, which still controls most access points to Gaza.

“Brothers, don’t ever give up your weapons,” a senior Gaza leader known by the nickname Abu Ibrahim told the crowd. “We can’t lay down our arms while Israel still occupies the West Bank, surrounds Gaza and controls our airspace and coastal waters, which means that the occupation remains and resistance will continue.” The arms ban was announced two months ago after an explosion at a Hamas rally killed 25 people. Hamas blamed Israel, but Palestinian investigators said the blast was set off when fighters mishandled explosives they were displaying at the rally.

Al Aqsa Spokesman Zakariya Assouli said the group supported the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to stop internal violence, while reserving the right to avenge Israeli attacks.

“We respect our brothers in the political leadership,” Assouli said. “We honour their commitments, but they can’t ask us to watch daily Israeli aggression and to remain silent.” Also Thursday, an Israeli military court sentenced Mohammed Mahmoud, a Fateh man from the West Bank city of Ramallah, to three life sentences plus an additional 30 years in prison for his role in two separate shootings in Israel in 2000 and 2001 that killed four Israelis.

The military court also handed down indictments against two young Hamas members for the September kidnapping and murder of Israeli businessman Sasson Nuriel. The indictment alleges Mohammed Ruhni, 17, planned Nuriel’s abduction, and Said Shlalda, 18, stabbed him to death.

Meanwhile, the head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees appealed Thursday for international aid to plug a $13-million deficit and enable it to keep rebuilding homes devastated in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We have a $13 million deficit and we have no new pledges except from Italy which promised one million dollars,” Karen Koning Abu Zayd told a news conference in Shuneh, on the Jordanian shores of the Dead Sea.

“Four of five other donors have hinted” they will make new contributions but there were no firm pledges yet, the head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) said.

“If they make contributions, it will narrow the deficit to five millions,” she said, adding that UNRWA’s budget for 2005 stood at $365 million.

The chronically cash-strapped agency plans to increase its budget for the next two years by 30 per cent, Koning Abu Zayd said.

“The problem is not the budget, the problem is where to find the money,” she said, hoping that new donor member states, including South Africa, Chile, Algeria and Qatar, will heed her appeal.

“We are asking for more money in order to increase our services,” including rehousing hundreds of homeless in the Gaza Strip, she said.

She singled out large contributions from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates which have allocated $20 million each to rebuild homes in the Palestinian territories.

UN officials said in July that funds were in place to accommodate 1,285 families in the Gaza Strip, but the agency still needed $28 million to house a further 1,352 homeless refugee families.

Abu Zayd said UNRWA was “doing very well in Gaza” since Israel completed a unilateral withdrawal in September.

“There is no problem in movement in Gaza but the West Bank worries us because of the wall (security barrier), settlements and restrictions on movement there,” she said.

“A lot of our work depend on the Israelis. It is very visible that the Israelis are making big efforts with the UN and actually they are relying on us because if we were not there they would have to do our job,” she said.

UNRWA cares for 4.2 million refugees in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, which is home to the largest community of around 1.8 million refugees.

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