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Israel, Palestinians on brink as Israel retaliates for soldiers' deaths
Diplomatic efforts to negotiate cease-fire uncertain
RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- Israel launched air strikes into Ramallah and Gaza on Thursday in retaliation for the killings of two Israeli soldiers captured by Palestinian police and beaten to death by a mob that stormed the police station where the soldiers were taken.
Palestinian radio in Ramallah was knocked off the air by one of the attacks, while ambulances and fire vehicles swarmed around flames rising from near a residential area.
Palestinian officials said the strikes amounted to all-out war, and appealed for immediate international intervention to stop two weeks of clashes between Israeli security forces and rock-throwing Palestinians that have killed nearly 100 people -- all but a few Palestinians or Israeli-Arabs.
Helicopters rocketed the residential compound in Gaza of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
"This is a declaration of war," Arafat told reporters in Gaza where he had been scheduled to meet with U.S. Central Intelligence Director George Tenet. Palestinian officials said Tenet had stopped at Erez Crossing but decided to turn back to Israel.
The attacks in Ramallah destroyed the top floor of a police station and badly damaged the bottom floor, said CNN Producer Sausan Ghosheh. At least 16 people were injured. A building near the Palestinian Authority headquarters was also damaged.
Outside the ruined police station, angry Palestinians gathered, many agreeing with Arafat that the attack was a declaration of war, she said.
In Gaza City, CNN's Rula Amin reported that Israeli gunboats were on patrol off the coast of the Palestinian city.
Witnesses said that helicopters fired in the vicinity of Arafat's headquarters there, but the building was not hit.
A Palestinian marine force boat docked at a marina was damaged in the attack.
Israel seals Palestinian communities
Immediately after the air strikes, Israeli officials closed all Palestinian-controlled areas, barring, except in an extreme emergency, Palestinians from traveling outside their communities.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak called the situation "grave" and canceled all his appointments for the day.
Israeli Army Col. Raanan Gissin told CNN Jerusalem Bureau Chief Mike Hanna that the attack on Ramallah was "more than retaliation" for the deaths of the soldiers.
"Our purpose and mission is really to deliver a very stern message that these things cannot be tolerated," Gissin said. "Even in a war there are certain conventions that can't be violated, and this is a violation of the worst way."
The deaths of the two Israeli soldiers, and the Israeli response, put up seemingly insurmountable blocks to efforts to mediate a cessation of violence in the region.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who held meetings with Barak and Arafat over the last two days, said the incident "complicates the issues we are trying to resolve."
Annan spoke following a meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Emile Lahoud in Beirut, where the U.N. chief was seeking a resolution to the capture of three other Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah fighters near the Lebanon-Israel border.
Annan's diplomacy had secured a commitment from both the Israelis and Palestinians for a high-level security meeting to be chaired by the U.S. CIA chief, but Tenet's plans following Thursday's events were unclear.
Israelis, Palestinians blame each other
Gissin, the Israeli colonel, said that the mob attack that left the two soldiers dead was unwarranted and unprovoked.
"We've been trying to argue with the Palestinians that they should take control of the situation," he said. "But what happened today seems the complete lack of control and unfortunately instigated and supported as we know by some of the Palestinian police."
But the Palestinians said that the soldiers were on an undercover mission, in civilian clothes and driving a civilian car, when they were captured. The Israeli army said the men were reservists trying to reach their post when they took a wrong turn.
Israeli military officials said that two other soldiers were unaccounted for after the attack, but Nabil Abu-Rudeinah, an adviser to Palestinian leader Arafat, said the Palestinians were not aware of any other soldiers.
The dead soldiers' bodies have been turned over to Israeli authorities.
Palestinians and Israelis have been fighting for two weeks, since hawkish Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited a bitterly contested religious site in east Jerusalem.
Sharon, the Likud Party chairman, came to the site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Arabs as Haram as-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, on September 28. Arabs considered the visit an insult, and said Sharon "defiled" the sacred site.
CNN Jerusalem Bureau Chief Mike Hanna, CNN Correspondent Jerrold Kessel, Ben Wedeman and Rula Amin, and CNN Producer Sausan Ghosheh contributed to this report.
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Israel Defense Forces
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