NABLUS, West Bank, Feb 23 (Reuters) Israeli troops killed five Palestinians today during the biggest raid against West Bank militants for months, stoking tension as Hamas Islamists held talks to form a new Palestinian government.
''This is a war crime aimed at continuing the escalation and undermining Hamas efforts to form a government,'' said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. ''We are committed to resistance and the occupation will pay the price for these crimes.'' Abu Zuhri did not say exactly what Hamas would do. Though formally committed to destroying Israel, it has largely followed a truce for the past year. Its election victory last month knocked any hopes that Middle East peacemaking might be revived.
Medics said three gunmen were among the dead in Nablus today. Two other men were shot dead when Palestinians confronted troops with stones and petrol bombs.
The army said its forces had opened fire when they came under attack as they tried to arrest wanted militants planning to strike Israel. Two Israeli soldiers were wounded.
The latest deaths in Nablus took the toll to eight over five days. It was the deadliest raid into the occupied West Bank since mid-2005.
An Israeli election looming on March 28 puts interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert under pressure to show he is ready to use force. Pundits say that any Palestinian suicide attacks could strip the big opinion poll lead of his Kadima party.
Clashes began in Nablus today after the army expanded the scope of its operation from Balata refugee camp, on the outskirts, into the city centre, blocking main roads and forcing schools and some businesses to close.
FURY Angered by the deaths, hundreds of Palestinians marched in the streets shouting ''Death to Israelis, death to occupation.'' An Israeli military official in Jerusalem said troops were searching for militants suspected of involvement in planning suicide bombings and other attacks.
The main targets of the raid have been Islamic Jihad, which carried out two suicide bombings in Israel in recent months, and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group that is part of the mainstream Fatah movement.
Hamas, which defeated Fatah in the January 25 election as much thanks to its corruption-free image as for attacks on Israelis during an uprising since 2000, has done much better than other Palestinian factions to respect a ceasefire.
In the Gaza Strip, Hamas continued talks with other parties aimed at forming a government.
It has five weeks to set up a new Palestinian Authority while facing the prospect of immediate financial crisis as Israel has said it will cut off tax payments and Western donors have threatened vital aid.
They demand that Hamas drop its charter vow to destroy the Jewish state, abandon violence and agree to peace talks.
President Mahmoud Abbas has also pressed Hamas to accept his vision of negotiations for a Palestinian state.
Abbas's outgoing Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie said chances were slim that their long-dominant Fatah party would join a Hamas government. Qurie said Fatah wanted to concentrate on rebuilding itself after its election defeat.
In Gaza, Islamic Jihad militants said they fired seven rockets at Israel in response to the Nablus operation, in which a senior commander in the group was killed on Tuesday. The army said five rockets struck in Israel, causing no casualties.
More than two dozen militants have been arrested in the West Bank since the Israeli operation began on Saturday, military sources said. Palestinians said more than 50 people had been injured during confrontations.
REUTERS MP RAI2200