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2 Israelis killed in Palestinian attack on road into Gaza Strip

JERUSALEM—Palestinian gunmen staged a brazen attack late Saturday on the main settler road into the Gaza Strip, killing two Israelis and marring Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's latest Middle East peace mission.

Just hours after Rice praised Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for cracking down on militants, gunmen infiltrated the heavily patrolled road into Israel's largest settlement bloc—slated to be razed next month—and opened fire. Two Israelis, believed to be a husband and wife, were killed and five others were wounded, military officials said.

The attack appeared designed to undermine both Abbas and Rice, who met earlier Saturday at the Palestinian leader's West Bank headquarters in a bid to prevent the region's latest moves toward peace from falling apart.

Earlier in the day, Rice commended Abbas for his attempts to "enforce the rule of law" by cracking down on militants who have engaged in a series of recent gun battles with Palestinian security forces in the Gaza Strip.

"These efforts demonstrate the Palestinian leadership's commitment to ensuring security and tracking down those who perpetrate violent attacks that only delay the achievement of a Palestinian state," Rice said at a joint news conference with Abbas before Saturday's attacks.

Rice launched her last-minute mission to the Middle East over the weekend after Islamic militants clashed with the Palestinian leader's police force in the Gaza Strip and fired a series of rockets into nearby Israeli settlements.

With Israel on the brink of forcibly removing all 8,500 settlers from the Gaza Strip and several hundred from four smaller settlements in the West Bank, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon threatened to invade the Palestinian lands if Abbas couldn't bring things under control.

For two days, Rice shuttled back and forth between Israeli and Palestinian leaders and said Saturday that she meant "to help bring the weight of the United States" to ensure that the pullout—known as disengagement—did not fail.

"Disengagement from Gaza and the West Bank is our best chance to move forward on this agenda," said Rice. "We believe that we can re-energize the road map and achieve the goal of a brighter future for Palestinians."

Hours later, gunmen staged their attack along the Kissufim Crossing, the heavily fortified road leading from Israel into the Gaza Strip settlement block known as Gush Katif. Militants with Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades claimed responsibility for the assault, which took place on a bridge that passes over the main road connecting Palestinian cities in the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli military also announced that it thwarted a teenage Palestinian suicide bomber who was caught as he tried to leave the Gaza Strip en route to Tel Aviv. The Israel Defense Forces said they captured Jihad Shahada, 18, with an explosive belt near an Israeli kibbutz near the Gaza Strip.

The latest upsurge in violence is certain to put renewed pressure on Abbas to confront Palestinian militants as Israel prepares to shut down its settlements. When Israel begins closing the settlements, the Kissufim Crossing will be the main route for removing settlers and Israeli opponents looking to block the contentious plan.

In an effort to block Israeli activists from undermining disengagement, Israel has declared the Gaza Strip a closed military zone and is strictly regulating who can come and go.

Because the road will be critical to the plan, Israel is likely to strike back. Last December, 10 Israelis were wounded in an attack along the road. And in December 2002, a rabbi was killed as he drove to a wedding celebration.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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