Three militants killed in Gaza Strip blast

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The Independent Online

Three militants trying to attack an Israeli bulldozer blew themselves up today, according to television footage and the Israeli army.

The roadside bomb in the Rafah refugee camp went off a few yards from where the bulldozer was piling up mounds of dirt in a crowded residential area during an Israeli operation to destroy weapons-smuggling tunnels from Egypt, according to Associated Press Television footage.

The violence came a day after vigilantes killed three Palestinians convicted of collaborating with Israel - two of them in their hospital beds - in an incident that highlighted the progressive breakdown of law and order in Gaza.

The Hamas militant organization said two of the casualties in Rafah were its members, and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades claimed one of the dead men. The explosion blow off half of one man's skull.

Ten people were wounded, including a Reuters TV cameraman who suffered a shrapnel wound in his hand, according to witnesses and hospital officials.

No Israelis were injured.

Moments before, masked militants were filmed putting a detonator in an alley near the road. Palestinian ambulances already were standing by, as people in nearby buildings waved white flags to show the Israelis the buildings were inhabited by civilians.

The Israeli army has been conducting an extensive operation in the Gaza-Egypt border area since before dawn Tuesday. A spokesman said it was one of four similar bombs that went off during the night.

The Rafah border area is strewn with land mines and other roadside bombs planted by militants. The bulldozers and sappers scour the area to destroy tunnels used by Palestinians to smuggle arms from Egypt into the Gaza Strip.

Meanwhile, Hamas aired a video on the Al-Arabiya satellite television showing three masked men surrounded by weapons. One of the men read a statement threatening to rain rockets from the Gaza Strip on the Israeli town of Sderot.

On Monday, Palestinian vigilantes executed two collaborators in their beds in a Gaza hospital, where they were taken hours earlier with injuries from a grenade explosion in their jail cell that killed a third spy.

The Wild West-style episode occurred just as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat ordered a restoration of law and order in the Palestinian territories, where militants outgun the fragmented Palestinian police forces.

The two collaborators killed in Gaza City's Shifa Hospital - the main medical facility in the city of about 300,000 Palestinians - had confessed during their trials to helping Israeli forces kill two top Islamic militants.

The chain of events began just after sunrise in the central prison at Palestinian security headquarters.

Two grenades were thrown into the cell where the convicted spies were held, wounding seven. One of the wounded died of his injuries in Shifa Hospital.

Around noon, five masked gunmen taking part in a funeral procession for three other militants killed in an overnight clash with Israeli forces broke away and raced into the hospital.

The five went straight to the room where Mahmoud al-Sharef, 52, was being treated for wounds from the grenade attack. They shot him twice in the head, killing him, and fled the building. Police detained one militant for questioning.

Just five hours later, it happened again.

At least 20 armed militants raced to the hospital in four vehicles, witnesses said, screeching to a halt at the entrance. Most of the gunmen deployed on the street, closing it off, while five ran into the hospital.

This time their goal was the intensive care unit, where Walid Hamdiyeh, 42, was being treated. They shot him three times in the head and chest, killing him, and escaped.

In a statement, Hamas claimed responsibility for the grenade attack and the killing of Hamdiyeh.

Al-Sharef and Hamdiyeh were considered the prime collaborators held in Palestinian custody because of their roles in Israel's killing of militants.

Hamdiyeh confessed during a 2002 trial to providing Israel with information that helped its forces kill Imad Akel, a founder of the Hamas military wing, in 1993.

Al-Sharef was convicted in 1999 of being involved in the killing of Mahmoud al-Khawja, the founder of Islamic Jihad's military wing, four years earlier.

By coincidence, the Palestinian political and security leadership was deep in discussions about the growing lawlessness as the Gaza vigilante raids were unfolding.

The Palestinian Cabinet decided to replace 22 local police commanders in an effort to take back the streets from armed gangs of militants and criminals who have become the main force in many cities and towns.

From now on, said Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, "The Palestinian police will deploy on the streets with his uniform and his police car."

Reform of Palestinian security has been a key demand from Palestinian critics of Arafat's one-man rule. Israel and the United States consider such reforms as critical for progress toward a peace agreement.

Last week Qureia withdrew his resignation letter after Arafat pledged to give him and his Cabinet control over law enforcement. However, Arafat keeps the reins over several of the main armed bodies, and skeptics doubt whether anything has actually changed.