JERUSALEM — Israel hinted Wednesday that it was returning to a policy of "targeted killings" of Palestinian militants, a practice it had largely abandoned under a truce struck four months ago.
It appeared that the immediate threat of assassination applied only to members of Islamic Jihad, which has claimed responsibility for recent attacks against Israelis.
Israeli security officials confirmed that a missile strike in the Gaza Strip a day earlier had been an attempt to kill an Islamic Jihad member, whom they did not identify.
"Any means to neutralize this organization are relevant and possible," the Israeli minister for public security, Gideon Ezra, told reporters.
The warning underscored the rapid cooling of relations between the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The two leaders met Tuesday for the first time since Feb. 8, but by most accounts the session was quarrelsome and unproductive.
The apparent policy reversal was somewhat ambiguous because even after renouncing targeted killings in February, Israel reserved the right to go after "ticking bombs" -- anyone who was about to carry out an attack. It was not known whether the man Israel tried to hit in Tuesday's missile strike fell into that category.
Throughout the more than four years of the current conflict, Israel has targeted scores of Palestinian militants for death, including Sheik Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of the group Hamas. The attacks were usually carried out with missiles fired by helicopters or drone aircraft, hitting militants in their cars or on motorbikes. One was on a donkey-drawn cart.
Sometimes the target was suspected of involvement in an imminent attack against Israelis. But some, such as Yassin and his successor, Abdulaziz Rantisi, slain weeks apart last year, were senior leaders with varying degrees of involvement in the day-to-day planning of lethal acts.
On Wednesday, an Israeli aircraft fired missiles that destroyed what the army said were several rocket launchers in the northern West Bank. A military spokesman said the strike was aimed only at the launchers, not at an individual.
An Islamic Jihad spokesman in the Gaza Strip, Khader Habib, said if targeted killings resumed, the group would respond with force. "If they target any leader or activist, we won't sit by with our hands folded," he said.
Even before Tuesday's attempted killing, Israel had signaled that Islamic Jihad was in its crosshairs. In the last two days, Israeli forces have rounded up more than 60 suspected members, the first time in months that troops have made so many arrests. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and other officials said Israel would confront the militia without restraint.
In another sign of increasing tension, Israel warned for the first time that if Palestinian militants launched attacks as Jewish settlements were being evacuated as planned this summer, it might respond with airstrikes on Palestinian areas.
In crowded Gaza, such a barrage would carry a high risk of civilian casualties.
"Israel will act in a very resolute manner to prevent terror attacks while the disengagement is being implemented," said Eival Giladi, a senior aide to Sharon, using Israel's term for the pullout from all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four small sites in the West Bank. The withdrawal is to begin in mid-August.
"We may have to use weaponry that can cause severe collateral damage, including helicopters and planes, with increased danger to people in the surrounding areas," Giladi said.
Wednesday also brought fresh indications of the chaos and lawlessness plaguing the Palestinian territories, particularly in Gaza and pockets of the West Bank.
In the Balata refugee camp outside the West Bank city of Nablus, Palestinian gunmen fired volleys of bullets outside a building where Prime Minister Ahmed Korei was speaking, then set off an explosive device as he left the area. The Palestinian leader was not injured, nor were the members of his entourage.
The prime minister had traveled to Balata, a stronghold of militant groups, to talk about the need for law and order.
"This is an example of exactly the kind of deterioration in the internal security situation that we are trying to address," said Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian deputy prime minister.
Israel, meanwhile, was strongly criticized by New York-based Human Rights Watch, which accused authorities of failing to adequately investigate hundreds of Palestinian civilian deaths during the last four years.
Citing what it termed a "climate of impunity," the group said in a new report that it believed the Israeli military had investigated fewer than 5% of more than 1,600 civilian deaths that had occurred since September 2000, when the Palestinian uprising began.
The army responded that it had "carefully and seriously" investigated cases in which there was reason to believe there had been wrongdoing. "The fact that innocent people were harmed does not necessarily indicate soldiers are guilty of a crime," the military said in a statement.
Human Rights Watch urged Israel to create an independent panel to investigate allegations of rights abuses by troops and said the results of such probes should be made public.