GAZA, Nov 25: Israel launched helicopter and surface-to-surface missile strikes in the Gaza Strip on Sunday in a fresh round of tit-for-tat violence ahead of a new US peace mission aimed at ending 14 months of violence.

The strikes, which Palestinian officials said destroyed several security posts and wounded at least three people, followed a Palestinian mortar bomb attack on Saturday that killed an Israeli soldier near a Jewish settlement in Gaza.

The Hamas group said it fired the mortar bombs to avenge what it called Israel’s assassination of Mahmoud Abu Hanoud in a helicopter ambush on Friday. He was a top member of Hamas’s military wing, which has killed dozens of people in bombings in Israel.

The violence threatened peace efforts set to take off on Monday with the arrival of former US Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns.

After months of low-key diplomacy, the United States is stepping up its efforts to defuse the Middle East conflict amid global pressure for US mediation and a desire by Washington to cement Arab support for its anti-terrorism war in Afghanistan.

“I cannot forecast whether these efforts will succeed because (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon is trying to drown these efforts in a sea of blood,” Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo told Voice of Palestine radio.

But Sharon said it was up to the Palestinians to make a truce hold and pave the way for a return to peace talks.

“We see this as a most important matter and we will make every effort to reach a ceasefire,” Sharon told his cabinet ministers during a weekly meeting on Sunday.

“This is a test of (Palestinian President Yasser) Arafat and of the Palestinian leadership to demonstrate if indeed they intend to advance the peace process,” he said.

At least 720 Palestinians and 189 Israelis have been killed since a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation erupted in September 2000 after peace talks stalled.—Reuters

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