Israeli soldiers shot dead five Palestinians in the Gaza Strip Thursday on the bloodiest day in the coastal territory in weeks.
Troops killed a woman, 35, and an armed man during a raid of a militant stronghold in the southern Gaza town of Rafah.
In northern Gaza, soldiers killed three teenagers, whom Palestinians said were shepherds and the Israeli army said were tinkering with a rocket launcher. Two rockets were launched from the area earlier, damaging an Israeli apartment building.
The flareup came after Egypt reported progress in efforts to free an Israeli soldier whose capture on June 25 in a cross-border raid from Gaza, sparked an Israeli offensive in which more than 215 Palestinians have been killed.
The ruling Islamic militant group Hamas welcomed a statement by the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators endorsing efforts to forge a Palestinian unity government that could help end the offensive and an international aid blockade.
In its statement issued on Wednesday, the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia said any unity government should "reflect" demands to recognize Israel, renounce terrorism and abide by peace deals.
The Quartet did not call on the Palestinian Government to explicitly meet the three conditions, and also urged Israel to hand over withheld Palestinian tax revenues.
Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said the statement was a sign of progress and "we hope that this position will contribute to stopping all forms of political and economic siege."
Israel reacts cautiously
Israel reacted cautiously to the statement with some officials acknowledging it amounted to a weakening of an international campaign to isolate the Hamas-led government that came to power in March.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said it was critical to insist that Hamas meet the three conditions. "Giving legitimacy to the extremists that do not accept the three benchmarks can only undermine the position of the moderates."
Right-wing Israeli politicians said the Quartet position amounted to a defeat for Israel.
Silvan Shalom, a former foreign minister of the Likud party, accused Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of giving a green light to the policy change by agreeing to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate, while Hamas remained in power.
Olmert has seen his public standing plummet since a war with Hizbollah guerrillas ended on Aug.14 with the group's leaders still in power and two Israeli soldiers, whose capture sparked the fighting, still not released.
A poll in Israel's biggest circulation daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, showed Olmert trailing two right-wing lawmakers and two of his own cabinet ministers, with a mere 7 percent saying he was best suited as prime minister.
American and Israeli officials have cast doubt on the prospect of Palestinians forming a unity government anytime soon, a reason why the United States was willing to soften its stance, a senior Israeli government source said.
The Americans "did not want to get into a fight with the Europeans over what they think is a dead horse."
Tensions between Abbas's Fatah movement and Hamas flared up last week when a top intelligence official loyal to Abbas was gunned down in Gaza.
Tawfik Tirawi, a deputy intelligence commander, held a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah, accusing Hamas of failing to stop the attack and arrest those responsible, warning this could bring more violence.
"If we do not quickly end this case and arrest all perpetrators... then we are heading towards destruction," Tirawi said. Hamas rejected the allegations as politically motivated.
(China Daily September 22, 2006)