A surge of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is threatening the Mideast cease-fire. The incidents coincided with a diplomatic storm as the British foreign secretary arrived for peace talks.

It was one of the deadliest days of violence since Israel and the Palestinians agreed to a cease-fire four months ago. Gunmen from the Islamic militant group Hamas shelled Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip and inside Israel. The barrage killed two non-Israeli workers, an Asian and a Palestinian. Hamas said the attacks were in retaliation for a visit by Israelis to a Jerusalem holy place that is sacred to both Muslims and Jews.

"Hamas is trying very hard to undermine our efforts to move toward peace with the Palestinian Authority," said Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

In the West Bank, Israeli forces raided the town of Kabatiya and killed two Palestinians, including Maraweh Ikmil, a local commander of the Islamic Jihad group. The army said he was planning an imminent attack.

Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat told VOA that the truce could collapse. "My reaction is that we must retain the quiet and the cessation of violence at any cost, the situation is very dangerous," he said.

Jack Straw
The violence coincided with a new peace mission by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. But he shocked his Israeli hosts by disclosing that Britain has held contacts with elected officials from Hamas, which is on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations. Mr. Straw insisted that Britain's policy hasn't changed. "And our policy is clear, we will have no dealings with the leadership of Hamas or other such organizations, unless and until they wholly renounce violence and they renounce their charter calling for the destruction of the state of Israel," he said.

Both Britain and the US have been softening their approach to Hamas, after the group scored victories in Palestinian municipal elections. But Israel says contacts with Hamas will not advance the peace process.