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THE MIDEAST

3 killed in Gaza-Israel violence

Militant's death touches off fight

Cross-border fighting between Gaza and Israel, touched off by Israel's killing of a top militant leader, showed no signs of letting up on its third day yesterday. Gaza militants fired dozens of rockets at Israeli towns, hitting an empty school, and Israeli airstrikes killed three Gazans, including a boy and a farm guard.

Egypt tried to mediate but failed to end the worst violence in more than a year that has killed 18 Gazans, all but two of them militants, and disrupted the lives of some 1 million Israelis living within Gaza rocket range.

Even so, Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers seemed eager to avoid a full-scale conflict. A three-week war in three years ago left both sides badly bruised, Israel in the diplomatic arena and Hamas on the battlefield.

In the current round, Hamas has pointedly kept its large rocket arsenal and thousands of fighters out of the confrontation, even though it has not tried to stop two smaller Gaza groups, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, from launching rockets and mortars.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak acknowledged that Hamas did not take part in the rocket salvos. Up to now Israel has blamed Hamas for all violence from Gaza because it rules the territory.

Israel's military chief, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, said yesterday that 'we are not interested in escalation in and of itself.'

On a visit to southern Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged the airstrikes would continue as long as necessary. 'We have a clear policy: we will hit anyone who plans to harm us, who prepares to harm us and who harms us,' he said in a meeting with local leaders.

Israel said it launched Friday's initial airstrike, which killed PRC leader Zuhair al-Qaissi in a car in downtown Gaza, to stop a plan by his splinter group to infiltrate into Israel through Egypt's lawless Sinai Peninsula. Israel says the PRC was behind an attack on the border in August, killing eight Israelis.