Israeli troops and tanks entered the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip on Saturday and killed three residents on the eve of pivotal cease-fire talks called by U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni.
They were among five Palestinians who died Saturday, the highest Arab death toll in a week. The killings preceded a funeral of a 4-year-old girl shot in the head Thursday outside her home in Rafah.
Zinni was scheduled to meet with Israeli and Palestinian representatives today to try to close the gaps between the two sides on truce terms. Israel wants the Palestinians to arrest terrorist suspects, collect weapons and aggressively move to halt attacks before moving on to confidence-building measures and peace talks. The Palestinians have tried to link security issues to negotiations on a definitive resolution to the conflict. They are especially eager to see a freeze on the construction of Jewish settlements and troop withdrawals from Palestinian areas.
"The political talks should walk side by side with the security talks," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian information minister.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon complained that his government called a one-sided cease-fire this week but that it was met with three days of Palestinian suicide bombings that killed six soldiers and four civilians. Israeli military operations, however, were only scaled down, not abandoned. Saturday's incursion was the largest since troops withdrew from the West Bank town of Bethlehem a week ago.
The Bush administration has placed the blame for the recent violence almost exclusively on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The administration has dangled a meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney and as a reward for Arafat doing, in President Bush's words, "what he's supposed to do" to curb suicide bombings.
A military spokesman said the Rafah operation was designed to uncover tunnels under the sand, allegedly used to smuggle weapons. The attack was heralded by heavy gunfire into the camp. Bulldozers and tanks then rumbled 200 yards into Rafah, and destroyed three homes and a workshop.
Later in the day, the Israeli army said it killed two Palestinians as they tried to throw a grenade at a military post near Dugit in the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians were members of Hamas.
The violence was not expected to derail today's talks. Besides the cease-fire, other diplomatic initiatives are at stake. Arafat wants to travel to Beirut this week for an Arab League summit meeting.
Arafat is counting on Washington to pressure Sharon to let him out of Ramallah, where he has been confined since December by an Israeli military cordon around the West Bank city.
PALESTINIAN-IRAN CONNECTION? U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials have concluded that Yasser Arafat has forged a new alliance with Iran that involves Iranian shipments of heavy weapons and millions of dollars to Palestinian groups that are waging guerrilla war against Israel, according to a report in the New York Times in which it cited sources it did not name.
The new alignment is significant for several reasons, the officials said. In recent years, Iran's support for terrorism around the world has been on the wane, with the notable exception of its ties to the militant group Hezbollah.
_ Information from the New York Times was used in this report.