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Islamic Jihad activist killed in Israeli helicopter attack

Israeli soldier and Jewish settler
An Israeli soldier and a Jewish settler, wearing a T-shirt depicting the 10-month-old girl killed in Mideast violence, attend the baby's funeral in Hebron on Sunday  

RAFAH, Gaza (CNN) -- Violence in the Middle East continued Monday as Israel fired missiles at a pickup truck, killing an Islamic Jihad activist at Rafah near the Egyptian border in Gaza.

In Bethlehem, a daylight firefight erupted between Palestinians and Israeli troops.

Mohammed Dahlan, the head of the Palestinian Preventative Security Services, identified the dead man as Mohammed Abdel Al, 28, an Islamic Jihad activist. Two other people were injured in the attack, according to the Palestine Red Crescent Society.

Islamic Jihad is a radical organization that opposes any deal between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.

graphic Recent acts of violence in the Middle East:
 • Bombings
 • Activist deaths

The attack on Al was the first such attack since Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took office. At least a dozen people have been killed in similar Israeli attacks, which Palestinians call "assassinations." The Israelis call them "pinpoint strikes" against people that they say were in the forefront of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada.

Al was in his pickup truck when it was hit by four missiles fired by an Israeli helicopter gunship early Monday afternoon, Palestinian officials said. Islamic Jihad had claimed responsibility for a bomb attack at a shopping center in Jerusalem last week that injured six people.

Israeli military authorities had no immediate comment on the strike. But Israel Radio reported that Al had been on Israel's list of people it says are leaders of the six-month-old Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israeli sources told CNN that Al was on his way to carry out two "large attacks" on Israelis and had been responsible for past attacks.

Islamic Jihad vowed revenge for the killing. Al was buried shortly after the attack, amid mourners' shouts of "Revenge! Revenge!"

Palestinian sources said Al had been arrested by Israel and the Palestinian Authority but was released from jail last year.

bombed store
A Palestinian on Monday views the wreckage of his Hebron grocery shop, which was destroyed in an explosion Sunday night  

A short time after Al's killing, witnesses reported a heavy exchange of gunfire between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Small weapons and artillery or mortar fire was heard near a refugee camp.

Firing in the area is not uncommon at night, but area residents said the 30-minute firefight was one of the most intense daylight firefights they had seen.

Gen. Shaul Mofaz, the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, said the Palestinian Authority was behind the violence.

"In my professional opinion and on the information in my possession, all the various apparatuses of the Palestinian Authority are involved in terror," he said.

More than a dozen Palestinians have been killed in targeted operations attributed to Israel in six months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, but there had been no such killings since Sharon took office last month. On Friday, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer warned that Israel would end what he called "a policy of restraint."

The Palestinians are accusing Israel of launching a 100-day military offensive to undermine Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Sharon's new government had pledged to step up its battle against the Palestinian uprising, ending what some ministers said was the previous policy of restraint.

Marwan Barghouti, a prominent member of Arafat's Fatah movement, called the helicopter attacks a "very dangerous escalation in the Israeli policy against the Palestinian people."

"But these attacks will not succeed to stop the Palestinian intifada," Barghouti added.

Elsewhere on the West Bank, Israeli officials said a car bomb went off at a checkpoint. Israeli soldiers had been in the area but had left. No one was injured.

Al's death came as Israelis prepared to bury an army reservist killed Sunday night. The IDF said Sgt. 1st Class Yaakov Krentzel died during a gun battle between Palestinians and Israeli troops east of the West Bank city of Nablus.

Earlier, Israeli army officials blamed Jewish settlers in the divided city of Hebron for the bombing of a Palestinian-owned bakery that injured three police officers and heavily damaged two adjacent Palestinian shops. Israeli army officials condemned the attack, which they said endangered the lives of their troops nearby.

The bombing followed the funeral for a 10-month-old Jewish girl killed by a sniper who fired from Palestinian-controlled territory last week, and the burial of an 11-year-old Palestinian boy who died after being shot and wounded two weeks ago by Israeli troops.

Since the Palestinian uprising began in late September, more than 400 people, mostly Palestinians, have died in street battles and bombings. Sharon says the uprising must end before peace talks can resume.

At the White House on Monday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak pledged to cooperate with all "the main players" to achieve peace and stability in the region. He also urged the new U.S. administration to take a more active role in Mideast peace talks.

"I have great hope that President Bush will do the maximum effort for (peace) so as to reach lessening the tension and resume negotiations," Mubarak told reporters.

"We will use our prestige and influence as best we can to facilitate a peace," Bush said in response. "We can't force a peace."

Bush has taken a less personal role in the Mideast peace process than his predecessor, Bill Clinton, and has looked to moderate Arab states Egypt and Jordan to lower tensions.

Egypt and Jordan are working on a new diplomatic initiative with Palestinian leader Arafat, and Mubarak wants the United States to push Israel to resume negotiations. Bush has said he will not speak to Arafat until he publicly condemns the violence.

Correspondent Jerrold Kessel and Senior White House Correspondent John King contributed to this report.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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