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Blasts Jar Israeli Chief of Staff

West Bank: Violence surges on eve of U.S. peace initiative. General is evacuated uninjured after two roadside bombs hit his convoy.


JERUSALEM — Israel's top military commander escaped harm Sunday when two roadside bombs blasted his convoy south of the volatile West Bank city of Hebron, the army said.

The attack on Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli chief of staff, came amid a dramatic upsurge in violence on the eve of the Bush administration's most serious push yet to defuse the raging Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Thirteen Palestinians--many of them children--and one Israeli soldier have been killed in the last four days.

Mofaz on Sunday evening had ended a visit to troops guarding the Jewish settlement of Beit Hagai, about 30 miles south of Jerusalem and on the southern edge of the city of Hebron. His convoy was jarred by two roadside bombs, possibly detonated by remote control. He was immediately evacuated by helicopter to an airstrip near Tel Aviv. Neither Mofaz nor other members of his party were injured, army spokesman Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz said.

It was not clear whether the assailants, presumably Palestinian militants, knew they were targeting Mofaz or simply were attacking one of the many military convoys that pass through the occupied West Bank.

Israelis were braced Sunday for retaliation by the Islamic movement Hamas after the assassination Friday night of one of the organization's top military commanders. Mahmoud Abu Hanoud died in an Israeli missile strike on the vehicle in which he was traveling near the northern West Bank city of Nablus. The Israelis accuse Abu Hanoud of several terrorist attacks, and he has long topped their most-wanted list.

In an initial response, Hamas militants said, they fired mortars at a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, killing an Israeli soldier Saturday night. Israel retaliated early Sunday with a wave of airstrikes on Palestinian government offices across the Gaza Strip. At least three Palestinians were seriously wounded when a barrage of Israeli missiles slammed into Palestinian police, naval and intelligence offices, plus a regional headquarters of the Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

And in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Sunday, Israeli troops guarding a Jewish religious site shot to death a 13-year-old Palestinian boy. The army said he had attempted to throw a Molotov cocktail at soldiers.

This morning, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a terminal at the Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip, slightly wounding two border police officers, an army spokeswoman said.

The United States has long asked Israel to refrain from what Washington calls provocative actions, and has insisted that Israel withdraw from Palestinian cities it occupied in the wake of the Oct. 17 assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister.

Despite the U.S. pleas and the arrival today of two senior U.S. envoys, Israel said it will continue to maintain its tanks around the Palestinian-ruled northern West Bank town of Jenin, after pulling out of other towns, and will continue to hunt and kill suspected militants. The actions are a matter of self-defense, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon argues.

Washington has also insisted that Arafat arrest suspected terrorists, but he has shown little willingness to do so. Palestinians fired about three dozen mortar rounds at Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip on Saturday and Sunday, the Israeli army said.

The angry mood threatened to undermine a new U.S. peace effort that will be launched later today with the arrival of former U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Anthony C. Zinni and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns. Having wished to stay out of it, the Bush administration is attempting to defuse the Middle East crisis as a way to keep Arab support during Washington's war in Afghanistan.

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed-Rabbo accused Sharon of attempting to drown the U.S. initiative "in a sea of blood." Sharon told a Cabinet meeting that he wants a cease-fire but that the onus is on Arafat, who Sharon said will be tested as to whether he really wants peace. Arafat departed for talks in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Also Sunday, the Israeli government announced the arrest of at least 15 Palestinians it accuses of working as a terror cell for Iraq. Several of the men detained received military training in Iraq, according to a statement from Sharon's office. The group's leader was a member of the Palestinian Authority who took advantage of border privileges to smuggle weapons, the statement said.

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