Israeli troops exchanged fire with Palestinian gunmen near an Israeli settlement in the Northern Gaza Strip early yesterday, killing at least three of the assailants, the army said.
The militant Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade -- a violent group linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement -- claimed responsibility for the botched attack in a phone call to the Associated Press.
In the West Bank, army jeeps briefly entered the towns of Jenin and Tulkarem, but made no arrests, Palestinian security officials said.
The fighting came a day after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party set April 29 as the date for a vote on the hotly contested plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.
The referendum among 200,000 Likud members is to be followed within days by votes in the Cabinet and in parliament.
Sharon is taking a gamble since approval is far from assured. If he loses the referendum, there would be growing pressure on him to resign. The prime minister was leaving yesterday for the US where he will meet with US President George W. Bush to seek backing for the Gaza plan.
Sharon said Sunday that his plan would help Israel's security, improve its standing in the international community, boost the economy and lift peace efforts.
"There is no doubt that this plan opens a way in the future for a process of peace," he said.
Palestinian militants claim their attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers in Gaza are driving Israel out.
Early yesterday, several armed Palestinians opened fire on Israeli troops near the Israeli settlement of Netzarim in Gaza, the army said. The army confirmed at least three Palestinian gunmen were killed after drawing return fire from Israeli soldiers guarding the settlement.
The army said troops are searching the area for a possible fourth gunmen.
With criticism of the Gaza plan mounting in Likud, Sharon appears determined to win approval as quickly as possible. On May 2, within three days of the referendum, the Cabinet is to vote on the plan, and Israeli media said parliament could hold its vote the following day.
The extent of US support for the plan remains unclear. Sharon sent several senior aides to Washington over the weekend to work out final details on the agenda of the meeting.
Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they hope to win a US promise that Israel would not have to withdraw fully from the West Bank under a permanent settlement with the Palestinians.
Israel also wants assurances that millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants will be barred from returning to Israel.
But a senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Americans are resisting such assurances. Instead, he said, the US will say a final settlement has to be reached through negotiations.
The two teams are working on letters of understanding to be signed during the meeting, Israeli officials said.
On Sunday, Israel's Channel 10 TV reported that considerable gaps existed between the assurances the Israelis are seeking from the White House and the commitments the US is willing to provide.
The US has said it supports the idea of a Gaza pullout, but only as part of the internationally backed "road map" peace plan.
The road map calls for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, with the final borders to be negotiated between the two sides. The plan, however, has been stalled for months amid Israeli and Palestinian violations.