Israeli soldiers kill three in West Bank raids

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The Independent Online

Despite Israel's campaign, the Islamic militant group Hamas was expected to make a strong showing in today's vote, the third of four rounds of municipal elections.

Israel objects to the group's participation in Palestinian politics as long as it remains armed, and many of the Israeli attacks this week have been against Hamas targets.

Elections were held today in 82 West Bank towns and villages, with a total population of 376,000. Voting began at 7am (5am BST) and polls were to close at 10pm (8pm BST).

Turnout was brisk in Tamoun, a village east of Nablus where militants appeared poised to make a strong showing. Dozens of activists holding flags of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group rallied outside polling stations. Uniformed Palestinian police holding handguns and assault rifles stood on guard.

"I came here to vote for Hamas. I want Hamas to win because they believe in God and follow the teachings of the Koran," said Hamda al-Youssef, a frail 73-year-old man who said he was voting for the first time in his life.

Israel Radio said the army had permitted Palestinian police to carry weapons during the vote, and allowed international observers to monitor the election.

Israel launched the offensive last weekend in response to a series of Hamas rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip into southern Israeli towns. It has pushed forward with its series of air strikes and arrest raids, despite pledges by Hamas and other militant groups to stop the rocket fire.

Today's predawn raid came a day after Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas travelled to Cairo to try to enlist Egypt's help in trying to end the crisis, and Palestinian officials said Abbas would travel to Washington to meet U.S. President George Bush on 20 October.

A meeting between Sharon and Abbas, tentatively set for Sunday, was postponed, apparently because of the flare-up.

Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz said Israel was trying to teach the militants it would not tolerate any more attacks from the Gaza Strip following its pullout from the area earlier this month. "It needs to be clear to them that we mean every word we say," Mofaz said.

Early today, Israeli soldiers entered the West Bank town of Jenin and the nearby town of Burqin to carry out arrest raids.

Soldiers in Burqin shot and killed two armed men - the targets of the arrest raid - who appeared about to fire on the force, the army said. Soldiers later found assault rifles and ammunition clips on their bodies, the army said.

Palestinians identified the men as Islamic Jihad militants Nidal Khlouf, 32, and Samer Shalaby, 24.

In Jenin, a militant fired at soldiers, who returned fire and killed him, the army said. Palestinians identified the man as Samer Asady, 30, an Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades militant.

The leader of Al Aqsa in Jenin, Zakariya Zubeydi, said his group would no longer abide by an informal truce that had largely held since February. "The Israelis have not upheld their part of the cease-fire agreement," he said. "We will fight back hard and there will be no limits to our responses from now on. We need to protect our people."

The army confirmed the deaths, saying in a statement that it had identified gunmen during arrest raids.

The Israeli offensive was triggered by a rocket barrage launched by Gaza militants at Israel, including the border town of Sderot, over the weekend. Since then, militant groups said they would halt attacks and renewed their commitment to a seven-month-old truce, but Israel said it would press ahead with the campaign.

Early today, Gaza militants fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli force inside Israel, the army said. No one was injured.

Mofaz said that since Israel pulled out of Gaza more than two weeks ago after 38-years of occupation, the nation would no longer tolerate any attacks from there.

"They have no right and no excuse to fire on us from Gaza. They need to know the rules of the game have changed," he told Channel Two TV.

The US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday that US officials had been in contact with both sides about their responsibilities in stopping the violence.

"On the Palestinian side that responsibility is to act to stop any terrorism, to act to dismantle terrorist networks. On the Israeli side ... they (need to) take steps to ease the daily plight of the Palestinian people, as well as to take into account the effect of their actions upon what all share as the ultimate goal of bringing peace and stability to the region," he said.