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Hamas Militants Among Latest Israeli Victims - 2002-02-19

At least two Palestinian members of the militant Hamas group have been killed in an Israeli air strike on a target in the Gaza Strip in the latest retaliation for the deaths of four Israelis. At least nine Palestinians have been killed in the past 24 hours.

Israeli combat helicopters fired at an office of the militant group Hamas in the densely populated Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. A military statement said the air strike was "in response to the recent wave of murderous terrorist attacks" on Israelis.

Earlier, Palestinians say three people, including a teenage girl, were killed by Israeli tank fire in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in Gaza. In separate incidents, two other Palestinians were shot and killed by Israeli troops in Gaza.

In the West Bank, Israeli soldiers killed two Palestinians during an exchange of gunfire in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Nablus.

The air strikes follow the deaths of four Israelis on Monday.

A Palestinian leader in the West Bank, Marwan Barghouthi, says the Israeli military actions are an attempt to overthrow Chairman Yasser Arafat and end the nearly 17-month-old intifada, or uprising against Israeli occupation.

"There is an Israeli plan to continue to destroy the Palestinian Authority, to try and topple Mr. Arafat and to destroy the Palestinian intifada and the Palestinian resistance," said Mr. Barghouthi. "But I think they failed to do that and this will not stop the Palestinian resistance and the Palestinian intifada."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he has no intention of destroying the Palestinian Authority or physically harming Mr. Arafat.

The Palestinian leader has been surrounded by Israeli tanks since early December and has not been allowed to leave his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

With the death toll mounting, Mr. Sharon is under increasing pressure to crush Mr. Arafat's government.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says it is time to remove Mr. Arafat from the Palestinian territories. "I think right now Arafat is beyond deterrence," explained Mr. Netanyahu. "I think that we have to get rid of his regime and thereby also signal to any future Palestinian leadership that the cost of escalating, of waging terrorism against us, would be their own survival in their regime."

As the violence rages, international mediation efforts appear at an impasse, Israel seems no closer to stopping the uprising, and the Palestinians are still far from reaching their goal of an independent state.