Fighting between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen has raised more doubts about the durability of a truce between the two sides. Palestinian officials say three Palestinians were killed and more than 20 wounded in the fighting, which broke out overnight near the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.
The gunfight broke out late Wednesday after Israeli forces demolished several buildings in the camp. The fighting reportedly lasted several hours.
The Israeli army said the homes that were destroyed had been used to smuggle in weapons and to shelter Palestinian gunmen. The army said the action was in retaliation for an attack earlier Wednesday against an Israeli army post near Rafah, in which three soldiers were wounded.
The gun battle at Rafah took place just hours after Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat met in Gaza and agreed on a series of confidence-building measures to try to shore up a shaky ceasefire.
The latest violence cast further doubt on chances for success of the truce. A senior Arafat aide, Nabil Abu Rudeina, said the Israeli action at Rafah was an attempt to torpedo the results of the Peres-Arafat meeting.
The two sides are to resume security talks on Friday, and Mr. Arafat and Mr. Peres are supposed to meet again within a week to discus further measures to end a year of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Ending the violence is viewed as vital to American efforts to win Muslim support for its international coalition against terrorism.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell praised the Peres-Arafat meeting, calling it a hopeful sign. But the radical Islamic groups Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Lebanese-based Hezbollah, and several radical Palestinian groups have rejected the measures agreed upon in that meeting.
Syria has also criticized the meeting. The secretary-general of the country's ruling Baath Party, Abdullah al-Ahmar, said the Peres-Arafat meeting was an attempt to undermine the one year-old Palestinian intifada. He was speaking to representatives from radical Palestinian and Islamic groups meeting in Damascus.