JERUSALEM — Violence flared Monday on the eve of a planned meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, dampening already low expectations for their first face-to-face encounter in more than four months.
Gunmen from the militant Palestinian group Islamic Jihad killed a Jewish settler in a roadside ambush in the West Bank. And Israel said it narrowly prevented a suicide attack by a young Palestinian woman who had been given permission to travel from the Gaza Strip to Israel for medical treatment.
Also Monday, Israeli troops shot and killed a 17-year-old Palestinian youth and wounded a second as the pair approached the border fence between Gaza and Israel. Relatives said they believed the teenagers, both from an impoverished Bedouin clan, were trying to slip into Israel to find work.
Israeli and Palestinian officials acknowledged that the recent upsurge in violence was likely to make security matters the centerpiece of the Sharon-Abbas talks, which are to be held today at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem.
After Abbas was elected in January to replace the late Yasser Arafat, there were widespread expectations that the Israeli and Palestinian leaders would quickly try to develop a personal rapport that would contrast with the mutual loathing expressed between Sharon and Arafat.
However, Sharon and Abbas have not met since a Feb. 8 summit in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt.
Both sides head into the talks with a sense of grievance. Palestinians say Israel has granted far too few concessions, such as troop pullbacks and prisoner releases, that could have bolstered Abbas' popularity.
For Israel, the deteriorating security situation is taking on greater urgency because of its planned pullout from Gaza, scheduled to begin in two months. Israel, which is to relinquish 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four small ones in the northern West Bank, is extremely reluctant to give the appearance of withdrawing under fire.
Israeli officials were particularly troubled by the attempted suicide bombing. They said militants from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade recruited a 21-year-old woman who had been permitted to cross into Israel for treatment of severe burns suffered last year when a household gas canister exploded.
The woman, identified as Wafa Samir Ibrahim Bass, had made previous visits without incident to Soroka Medical Center in the southern desert town of Beersheba, Israeli authorities said.
"The terrorist infrastructure exploited her medical condition and her young age in order to try to carry out a major attack," said Capt. Yael Hartmann, an army spokeswoman.
Israeli troops stopped the woman at the main Erez crossing into Israel when her awkward gait aroused suspicion, officials said. She was wearing an explosives belt stitched inside a pair of trousers.
Soldiers at the scene said that once Bass realized she had been spotted, she tried unsuccessfully to detonate the explosives. Israeli authorities said she later confessed that she had been told by the Palestinian militants who dispatched her to set off the bomb at a hospital.
Human rights organizations denounced Palestinian militant groups for recruiting an ill patient and for targeting a medical facility.
"We utterly condemn this action in every respect," said Shabtai Gold, a spokesman for Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, which is often critical of Israeli authorities for impeding Palestinian access to medical care inside Israel.
Israel's domestic security agency, known as Shin Bet, made Bass available to Israeli media for brief interviews, during which she wept and made disjointed and contradictory statements.
Israeli authorities said Bass should have been apprehended on the Palestinian side of the checkpoint, and they demanded that Palestinian police bring in female officers to conduct body searches of Palestinian women. Both Israeli and Palestinian troops sometimes wave women through checkpoints without searching them because of the strong cultural taboo against Muslim women being touched by strangers.
The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade did not issue a formal claim of responsibility, although a local commander in Gaza told reporters that the woman was affiliated with the group.
The incident highlighted a primary source of tension between Sharon and Abbas. The Israeli prime minister has demanded that Abbas crack down on militant groups and disarm them. The Palestinian leader has shied away from a direct confrontation.
Abbas extracted an informal cease-fire this year from militant groups, and the calm had largely held except for the militants' firing of rockets and mortar rounds at Jewish settlements in Gaza.
Israel and the Palestinians have for the most part been observing a separate cease-fire agreed to at the Egypt summit.
The killing of a Jewish settler in the West Bank, however, could herald an ominous slide toward the daily violence that prevailed for much of the last 4 1/2 years.
Israeli authorities said a minivan carrying two people near the restive Palestinian town of Jenin and the Jewish settlement of Hermesh was riddled with bullets. Its gas tank was hit, and the vehicle burst into flames.
The assailants, from Islamic Jihad, escaped.
At the height of the Palestinians' intifada, or uprising, scores of Jewish settlers were killed or wounded in carefully laid roadside ambushes like this one. But such attacks have been almost nonexistent in recent months.
Palestinian officials condemned the spate of violence but said Israel was also to blame.
"We condemn all violations of the truce," said Foreign Minister Nasser Kidwa. "There have been Israeli violations, and there have been violations from Palestinian groups."