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Rabin pushed into corner by killings

JERUSALEM - Israel's government, after hinting it may soften its position over the Palestinian deportations to defuse international criticism, was knocked off course at the weekend by the killing of two Israeli soldiers, apparently by the armed wing of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, writes Sarah Helm.

The Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, whose officials have suggested that some of the deportees might soon be allowed back, will find it hard to justify even a small reversal to the Israeli public if Hamas continues successful attacks against Israeli targets.

However, the latest deaths have fuelled doubts about the wisdom of the deportations. Even the right-wing Jerusalem Post, which backed the deportations, yesterday said that if more such attacks occurred it would show the deportations had failed to isolate Hamas gunmen, and may have added to support for Hamas.

The two soldiers died on Saturday when gunmen opened fire on their vehicle, patrolling in a Jewish settlement at Ganei Tal, near the Khan Younis refugee camp in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip.

The Qassem brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, later said they carried out the killings, in retaliation for the Israeli Supreme Court decision on Thursday upholding the deportations.

The deaths are certain to heighten tension further in Gaza. The killing of three soldiers on 7 December, also by Hamas gunmen in Gaza, played a large part in the tension which led to the deportations on 16 December.

As the threat of a United Nations Security Council sanctions motion increases, Israel is eager to ensure a US veto. It emphasises Hamas is financed and directed by allied groups in the US. The Israeli authorities said yesterday they had detained three Palestinian Americans linked to Hamas. They said two were organisers, emissaries of the Hamas leadership which they said is centred in the US, and the third a member.