Source AP ©

Two Hamas militants killed in gunbattle with Israeli troops in Gaza

Israeli troops killed two Hamas militants in a shootout a mile (2 kilometers) inside Gaza on Tuesday, a day after Israeli leaders authorized larger numbers of ground forces to enter the volatile territory on pinpoint missions against Hamas rocket squads.

In another raid, in the West Bank city of Nablus, Israeli troops arrested Palestinian legislator Jamal Tirawi of Fatah, who has close ties to the movement's violent offshoot, the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, and was wanted for involvement in attacks on Israel.

In the past year, Israel has arrested scores of Hamas lawmakers, but Tirawi was the first to be detained from Fatah, which is led by moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel launched its latest military campaign in Gaza two weeks ago in an effort to curb Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli border communities. In the past two weeks, Hamas launched more than 250 rockets, killing two Israeli civilians in the town of Sderot, and causing thousands of its residents to flee to safer ground.

Abbas has called on militants to take the first step in forging a new truce with Israel.

Israel's predawn foray Tuesday into southern Gaza marked the second time in the latest round of fighting that Israeli forces entered the area, which Israel evacuated in September 2005.

Details of the raid were murky. Witnesses said forces searched three houses and arrested two brothers with ties to Hamas. At some point, a gunbattle erupted, and two militants were killed.

Although Israel's 2-week-old military campaign in Gaza against Hamas has been widened, a large-scale ground operation is not imminent, military officials have said.

In the past two weeks, Israel has largely struck from the air, firing missiles at Hamas rocket squads and training bases. Some 50 Palestinians, most of them militants, have been killed.

Abbas, meanwhile, appealed to militant groups to initiate a cease-fire with Israel, saying the alternative would be the collapse of the Palestinian coalition government.

The militants have said there could be no truce if Israel keeps up its attacks and refuses to extend any Gaza cease-fire to the West Bank, site of frequent Israeli swoops on militants. In an interview Monday with Associated Press Television News, Abbas said Palestinians should take the first step.

"The truce project means all acts by all parties stop, the Palestinians first and the Israelis, so we can move after to the West Bank," Abbas said. "Israel ... can do what it wants, whenever it wants, but we say we should do our duties and put the ball in the Israeli court."

In unusually harsh criticism of the militants, Abbas said the rocket attacks are pointless. "We say the Israelis have left Gaza, and all the settlements were dismantled. Who are we fighting? Why are we fighting?" Abbas said.

Abbas also said he was in frequent contact with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, but that the two don't meet daily because, according to Abbas, "his (Haniyeh's) life is in danger."

Haniyeh has kept out of sight since an air attack Thursday on the Shati refugee camp where he lives, and did not show up to head Monday's Cabinet session.

In Cairo on Monday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit called Israel's use of force "excessive" and "demanded the Israeli side immediately halt all of its military operations in the Gaza Strip."

He also emphasized "the necessity of stopping the launching of Palestinian rockets," calling them "a pretext for Israeli troops to carry out more military operations."

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