Six Palestinians and one Israeli killed after assassination of Israeli minister

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Israeli–Palestinian violence was escalating again despite US appeals for calm, with six Palestinians and one Israeli dead in a series of incidents one day after the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister.

Atef Abayat, leader of a Palestinian militia affiliated with Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, died Thursday along with two members of his militia when a powerful bomb went off in their car near Bethlehem in the West Bank. Palestinians charged that Israel planted the bomb. Abayat was high on the Israeli wanted list, accused of involvement in attacks that killed five Israelis.

The latest upsurge started Wednesday, when Israeli Cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi was assassinated by militants from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, revenge for Israel's killing of PFLP leader Mustafa Zibri in an Aug. 27 missile attack.

In a year of fighting, more than 50 Palestinians, including some bystanders, have been killed in targeted operations by Israeli special forces. Referring to the death of Abayat, Israeli government spokesman Dore Gold said, "We are not confirming or denying what Israel did or didn't do."

A statement from Sharon's office said the blast was a "work accident," claiming that Abayat might have been preparing a car bomb, a contention ridiculed by Palestinians.

West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti charged that the blast meant that Israel has "decided to wage a comprehensive war against the Palestinian people."

Earlier, Israel demanded that Arafat's police arrest and hand over Zeevi's assassins, but the Palestinians refused. "We do not receive our orders or directions from Sharon and his government," Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said.

Sharon's government warned that if the Palestinians do not comply, Israel would treat them as an entity that harbors terrorists, implying a military assault.

In Washington, U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Philip Reeker called on Israel to show restraint despite the assassination, instead of letting terrorists sabotage peace moves. "That's exactly what the perpetrators of these acts want to see happen," he said.

Concentrating on Afghanistan, the United States is concerned that Israel–Palestinian fighting could get in the way of efforts to include moderate Arab nations in its struggle against international terrorism.

Responding to the assassination of Zeevi, Sharon's security Cabinet said it would carry out operations in Palestinian areas whenever necessary. On Thursday, Israeli forces invaded Palestinian–controlled territory twice, in the towns of Ramallah and Jenin.

A 12–year–old girl was killed when Israeli gunfire hit a school in Jenin, Palestinian doctors said. The Israeli military said its forces were not aiming at the school, but a commander was relieved of his duties for leading his troops too far into a built–up area.

Two Palestinian security officers were killed in exchanges of fire in Ramallah, witnesses said.

In other violence Thursday, an Israeli was killed and two others wounded when Palestinians opened fire on civilian jeeps touring the desert between Jerusalem and Jericho, the military and rescue workers said.

Responding to the death of Abayat, Palestinian gunmen in the town of Beit Jalla opened fire on the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo, built on war–won land annexed to Jerusalem by Israel in 1967. Israeli soldiers fired back. It was the first exchange since Israeli tanks and troops entered Beit Jalla and held it for two days in August.

Israel charged that Abayat was behind repeated gunfire from Beit Jalla at Gilo before the incursion.

Since fighting erupted on Sept. 28, 2000, 689 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 186 on the Israeli side.

Zeevi was buried Thursday in a state ceremony. Thousands of Israelis crowded Jerusalem's military cemetery as Israel's leaders eulogized Zeevi, the first Cabinet minister killed by Palestinians. Zeevi favored removal of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza and was on the fringe of the Israeli political spectrum.