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Tit-For-Tat For Tots In Mideast

A Jewish settler was shot dead Tuesday in a roadside ambush claimed by Islamic militants who said they were retaliating for two mysterious explosions that killed three Palestinian militants and two children.

The Palestinians blamed Israel for the Monday night blast that killed the youngsters, ages four and seven. Israel's defense minister said the explosions were set off accidentally by Palestinian militants preparing bombs intended for Israel.

Two Palestinians were killed Tuesday — a policeman shot in a firefight with Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip refugee camp of Rafah and a suspected informer with Israel ambushed by a masked assailant in the West Bank town of Qalqiliya. Later Tuesday, a heavy gun battle erupted in the West Bank town of Ramallah, and witnesses said Israeli troops at one point fired tank shells to disperse Palestinian gunmen.

The renewed violence came as Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres started talks in the United States about a truce plan. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon held Yasser Arafat responsible for the escalation, saying the Palestinian leader has "complete control over events" and is running terror groups.

The slain Israeli motorist was identified as Assaf Hershkovitz, 31, a resident of the Jewish settlement of Ofra whose father Arieh was killed in another West Bank drive-by shooting in January.

Hershkovitz' van overturned after shots were fired at the vehicle on a road near the Beit El settlement on the outskirts of Ramallah, the army said. His sister, Yasmin, said he wore a bulletproof vest when he was killed.

She said the family was determined to stay in Ofra. "If we leave and go someplace else, then they (the Palestinians) will shoot us there," she told Israel radio.

The Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for the shooting, saying it was meant to avenge the Palestinians killed in separate blasts Monday.

The Ramallah explosion leveled a two-story apartment building near Arafat's headquarters. Three people were killed, including 4-year-old Malak Barakat, her 7-year-old brother Shahid and Hassan al Qady, a leading member in Arafat's Fatah movement.

Al Qady was suspected by Israel of killing a 16-year-old Israeli earlier this year. The teen-ager, Ofir Nahum, was lured to Ramallah by a Palestinian woman in an exchange of e-mail messages, dragged out of the car and killed by gunmen.

Palestinian intelligence chief Amin al Hindi said he believed Israel was behind Monday's explosion. Al Hindi said Palestinian civilians should stay away from militants wanted by Israel in the near future to avoid being targeted themselves.

Three people were injured in the Ramallah explosion, including Abeer Barakat, 25, the mother of the two children killed, and her 5-year-old daughter Wahed.

Mrs. Barakat said she was doing her laundry when the explosion went off. "I called out to my children, but only heard Wahed's voice," she said. "I was trapped on the ground (by rubble) and hearher crying."

A man who shared the ground floor apartment with Al Qady was also injured. Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah leader in the West Bank, said the man is wanted by Israel.

In Gaza City, hundreds of Hamas supporters joined the funeral march for two members of the group killed Monday when a bomb exploded in a van. Palestinian police chief Ghazi Jabali said the cause of the blast was still under investigation.

One Hamas activist announced over loudspeakers during the funeral that the group's military wing, Izzedine al Qassam, has claimed responsibility for the killing of the Jewish settler Tuesday.

Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said both explosions were triggered prematurely by militants preparing bombs intended for attacks in Israel. "They (the Palestinians) are blaming us. Their is no limit to their audacity. It's them, them, them," Ben-Eliezer said.

Since the fighting began last September, 430 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 72 on the Israeli side.

Peres arrived in New York to begin talks about an Egyptian-Jordanian plan to arrange a truce after seven months of Palestinian-Israeli clashes. In an interview with Israel television, Peres said there is an understanding with the Palestinians about a cease-fire, but "there is not yet agreement."

The Egyptian-Jordanian proposal calls for a monthlong cease-fire. However, Israel wants a trial period of two or three months before restarting negotiations.

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