Two Palestinians were killed in an Israeli missile strike yesterday, the second day of an army raid aimed at stopping Palestinian rocket fire from a refugee camp at nearby Jewish settlements.
In all, 12 Palestinians were killed in fighting in the Khan Younis refugee camp in southern Gaza since Thursday, officials said.
The Israeli military said the two Palestinians hit by the missile yesterday were militants. The army said the air force had spotted two armed Palestinians planting explosive devices near an Israeli military position and opened fire, hitting both.
Also yesterday, a 16-year-old Palestinian died of wounds sustained on Thursday, hospital officials said.
The Israeli military says its operation in Khan Younis is aimed at preventing militants from attacking nearby Jewish settlements. Earlier this month, a Thai worker died when a Palestinian mortar round hit the Jewish settlement of Ganei Tal.
In recent weeks, Palestinian militants have intensified mortar fire on Jewish settlements, ahead of Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer.
Palestinian militant groups are jockeying for power in the post-Israel era and want to portray the Israeli pullback as retreat under fire. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has warned that he is determined to stop the mortar attacks.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat condemned the Kahn Younis raid.
"I believe that this escalation, one week before the presidential election is seriously undermining this election," Erekat said.
The election is set for Jan. 9.
In the West Bank, meanwhile, Palestinian presidential candidate Mahmoud Abbas rode on the shoulders of the West Bank's most famous gunman during a campaign stop on Thursday, prompting questions of whether Abbas is playing campaign politics or identifying with violent groups.
Zakaria Zubeidi, the local leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Bri-gades, a violent group with ties to Abbas' ruling Fatah party, took center stage when Abbas came to visit the battered Jenin refugee camp.
Assault rifle slung over his shoulder, Zubeidi and other gunmen hoisted Abbas onto their shoulders, and the candidate smiled and waved.
Israel has been quietly backing Abbas, the front-runner in the presidential election. Abbas, who has called attacks against Israelis a mistake, is seen as a moderate.
Israelis contrast him with late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat, whom they had shunned, charging that he had been involved in acts of terrorism.
However, with the election less than two weeks away, and Abbas repeatedly referring to Arafat as his guide and associating with militants like Zubeidi, some Israelis are having second thoughts.
Zubeidi is idolized in the camp for his swagger and wanted by Israel for organizing attacks and sending suicide bombers into Israeli cities. Jenin was the scene of heavy fighting during an Israeli incursion in 2002 that followed one of the bombings.
Abbas won Zubeidi's ringing endorsement. After Abbas left the stage, Zubeidi, with gunmen firing in the air, warned that he would deal with anyone who attempted to challenge the elected Palestinian leadership. Then Zubeidi escorted Abbas' car out of the camp.
Palestinian analysts say Abbas needs to win the election in a landslide to capture even a part of the emotional backing that Arafat had, possibly explaining his trip to the camp and embrace of Zubeidi.