Israeli warplanes and helicopter gunships launched three air strikes in rapid succession around Gaza City yesterday, killing two Hamas militants and a bystander and wounding 23 other Palestinians.
The attacks, the latest in a cycle of tit-for-tat violence that has stalled a US-backed peace plan, came after gunmen killed three Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon prepared to deliver a policy speech to parliament.
In his policy speech opening the winter session of parliament, Sharon reaffirmed his commitment to the US-backed peace "road map."
He said that the plan -- drafted by the US, the UN, Russia and the EU -- was the "only hope" of a breakthrough towards peace with the Palestinians.
Sharon once again urged the Palestinian Authority to rein in militant groups spearheading a three-year-old uprising against Israel for statehood. He also called Palestinian President Yasser Arafat the biggest obstacle to Middle East peace and said Israel was determined to "remove" him from the political scene.
Earlier, in the bloodiest of three Israeli strikes carried out in five hours, a helicopter-fired missile hit a mini-van at a traffic light in densely populated Gaza City. Hamas sources said two members of the Islamic militant group were burnt to death in the attack.
Supporters screaming for revenge flooded into Gaza's Shifa hospital where their bodies were taken.
A 35-year-old man in a nearby car was also killed in the air strike and nine people were wounded, medics said.
Three hours earlier, an Israeli warplane bombed a building next to the home of Islamic Jihad leader Abdallah al-Shami in Gaza. The Israeli army said it had not been aiming for Shami but instead had destroyed a Hamas weapons workshop next door.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said the air strikes made it harder for Israel and the Palestinians to hold talks on ending three years of violence.
"Unfortunately this is part of the permanent Israeli aggression against the Palestinians," he told reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Jibril Rajoub, Arafat's senior security adviser, said: "The Israelis have to realize that their aggression against Palestinians only brings suffering, blood and lack of security for them."
A helicopter gunship also fired a missile that destroyed a one-room building on the outskirts of Gaza City. No casualties were reported.
The army said it hit a Hamas weapons storage site.
Palestinian medics said at least 14 civilians, including four women and four children, suffered light to moderate shrapnel injuries in the bombing raid in Gaza.
"Suddenly we heard a big boom and it was like an earthquake, everything started to fall on us, glass, pieces of debris," said neighbor Rawda al-Jamal, who rushed from his home carrying his wounded, one-year-old son in his arms.
"There I saw my neighbors' houses collapsing. People were screaming and running," he said.
Shami told al-Jazeera television he believed he had been the target of the air strike, not the building next door.
"The Zionist enemy blatantly said a few months ago that they had placed me on a list of targets," he said.
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