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Violence escalates as Sharon visits U.S.

As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon began a visit to Washington on Monday, Palestinian violence escalated and Israel stepped up its response.

Palestinian gunmen killed Baruch Cohen, 59, a Jewish settler in the West Bank who was driving to work in Jerusalem when his car was sprayed with bullets and ran into a truck.

The body of another man, Yitzhak Karbatov, was found in northern Israel on Monday and Israeli officials said 60 automatic rifles were stolen from the armory of a kibbutz, or commune, where Karbatov was head of security.

There were reports that authorities were investigating whether Palestinians may have forced Karbatov to open the armory and then killed him.

In the settler killing, Cohen's son Amnon was serving in the Israeli army nearby and was one of the first on the scene, according to a newsletter that settlers issued. When he saw the victim was his father, Amnon immediately tore his clothes according to Jewish mourning customs and broke down crying by the side of the road.

In a direct barb at Sharon, a group calling itself "Guevara Gaza" claimed responsibility for the attack. "Guevara" was the nom de guerre of a leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a breakaway faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who was killed in March 1970 in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Egypt as part of an anti-terror campaign run by Sharon.

On Monday morning, Israel immediately reimposed a security blockade on the Bethlehem area, which had been lifted just days earlier.

An army spokesman said the gunmen who shot Cohen crossed a Palestinian Authority security checkpoint and fled into Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem.

The night before, three mortar shells were fired from the Gaza Strip toward a military base guarding the Jewish kibbutz Nahal Oz inside of Israel. One Israeli soldier was lightly wounded.

The attack marked the first time since last fall's eruption of a new Palestinian intifada, or uprising, that shells were launched from Gaza toward Israeli targets inside Israel's 1967 borders.

Most of the fighting has taken place in areas that Israel has occupied since 1967 as part of a revolt against Israel's occupation of the area.

As if to underscore the message that Sharon is expected to deliver to President Bush today in Washington, Israeli politicians blamed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for failing to rein in militants. But Israel's Channel 2 Television reported Monday night that Sharon gave strict orders that there be no sweeping military response that could contribute to an escalation.

Instead, Sharon, who took office nearly two weeks ago, sought to portray a moderate, restrained response and enlist international support in blaming Palestinians for the collapse of peace talks.

Sharon's point of view appeared already to be accepted by the Bush administration, according to statements made by Secretary of State Colin Powell in a speech Monday morning to the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

"Leaders have the responsibility to denounce violence, strip it of its legitimacy, stop it. Violence is a dead end," Powell said in an oblique reference to Arafat, who has not publicly called for an end to the attacks.

In Israel, the day's violence appeared to dash glimmers of optimism that Sharon could succeed in lowering violence where the previous Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, did not.

Finance Minister Silvan Shalom announced Israel would not transfer tax revenues and other funds it owes the Palestinian Authority under a 1994 economic treaty. Washington and several European envoys had urged the Israeli government to transfer the money, saying it was counterproductive to weaken Arafat's regime.

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