The new operations by the two groups have come amid strenuous efforts by Egypt to persuade the larger movement, Hamas, to suspend attacks on targets inside Israel.

Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Sulaiman held talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on 14 November to brief them on the results of talks he had organised in Cairo between officials of Hamas and mainstream Palestinian group Fatah. Both parties denied reports that the meetings had resulted in a decision by Hamas to observe a ceasefire.

The fresh violence comes as Israel is preparing for general elections on 28 January.

The victory of Amram Mitzna in the Israeli Labour party primary election on 19 November was welcomed by Palestinian officials as offering prospects for peace negotiations to resume. The 57-year-old mayor of Haifa won the primary with 54 per cent of the vote, 16 points ahead of the incumbent party leader Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who served as defence minister in the national unity government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. However, most Israeli analysts say Mitzna stands little chance of winning the general election.

Before the vote Mitzna had pledged to restart negotiations with the Palestinians if he won power and to dismantle the settlements in the Gaza Strip within a year, whether an agreement were reached or not. ‘His programme revives hopes for resuming a meaningful peace process,’ said Palestinian legislative assembly speaker Ahmed Qorei. Before becoming mayor of Haifa in 1993, Mitzna served as commander of Israeli forces in the West Bank.

Sharon is expected to win the Likud

primary scheduled for 28 November. Polls put him well ahead of his principal

challenger, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.