Palestinian gunmen killed two Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and an Israeli missile strike killed a senior militant in Gaza yesterday in a fresh surge of violence ahead of an anticipated U.S.-led peace drive.

Israel said it hoped the fall of Iraqi President Saddam Hussain would teach the Palestinians the lesson that they must abandon their uprising for independence. But militant groups said they would not be cowed by the U.S. conquest of Baghdad.

The army said that in a pre-dawn attack in the West Bank, gunmen had cut through a fence surrounding an army base in the Jordan Valley and opened fire at a tent housing soldiers, killing two of them and wounding nine.

Troops shot dead one gunman on the spot and the second was killed in a chase.

Israeli helicopter gunships fired two missiles at a car in Gaza City, killing leading Islamic Jihad militant Mahmoud Al Zatma and injuring 10 people, Palestinian security sources and medics said.

Violence in a 30-month-old Palestinian uprising for independence had tapered off since Iraq war began on March 20, but fighting has been on the rise this week. Israeli strikes and raids have killed 13 Palestinians in Gaza in three days.

"I hope that in the era after the toppling of Saddam Hussain's regime, the Palestinians will understand that the world has changed," Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz told reporters.

He said Palestinians must "give the chance for a new and authentic leadership to grow, end terror and incitement and return to the negotiating table".

The new bloodshed runs counter to Washington's calls for calm before it introduces a long-delayed programme for Middle East peacemaking in the aftermath of the war in Iraq.

However, Palestinian militants vowed yesterday to intensify attacks on Israel after Baghdad fell to U.S. forces, saying they were the Arabs' last hope against American and Israeli military might in the Middle East.

Abdel Aziz Al Rantissi, senior political leader of Hamas, said he was shocked by the rapid U.S. conquest of the Iraqi capital but that there would be no knock-on collapse of the 30-month-old Palestinian uprising.

"There will be a change. Resistance will escalate and will become more violent. Resistance in Palestine will never stop because it is the last remaining hope for the whole Arab and Muslim nation," he said in Gaza City.

"Palestine is different from Baghdad. Resistance here is different and the examples stand before us – the honourable battles in Jenin, Nablus and Jabalya and all other refugee camps," said Islamic Jihad leader Abdallah Al Shami.

Palestinians who were grateful to Saddam for his financial and political support of their revolt have been stunned by televised scenes of U.S. troops sweeping almost unopposed into Baghdad and a Saddam statue felled and stomped on by Iraqis.

Palestinian militant leaders blamed the apparent demise of Saddam's rule on the indifference of Arab states quietly aligned with Washington for economic reasons.

They contended that Iraqis cheering U.S. soldiers were a minority phenomenon.

"Iraqis are living a double shock now at the collapse of Saddam Hussain's regime and the arrival of U.S. occupiers. Soon, when they realise what happened and they open their eyes to the ugly face of the occupation, resistance will erupt," Shami said.

Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat condemned the killings in Gaza and Tulkarem and accused Israel of trying to sabotage U.S. plans to promote peace.

Islamic Jihad official Moham-med Al Hindi accused Israel of trying to exploit the Iraq war to crush the uprising.

"The result of this new assassination will be resistance and response," he told Reuters in Gaza.

An anonymous caller to Reuters claimed responsibility for the West Bank attack in the name of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an offshoot of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction.

Palestinian security sources and medics said Al Zatma was an Islamic Jihad commander who had been wanted by Israel for involvement in a number of suicide bombings. The army had no immediate comment on the report of his killing.

In the West Bank town of Tulkarem, an Israeli unit on a raid exchanged fire with a group of Palestinian gunmen yesterday, killing one of the Palestinians and wounding four others, an Israeli military source said.

Palestinian witnesses said undercover soldiers had fired on a vehicle in the town's centre, hitting its three passengers and a bystander. They said the dead man was a member of Al Aqsa.

In Nablus, Israeli troops arrested four 17-year-old girls on suspicion they planned to carry out suicide attacks, the army said. The four are close friends and attend the same school.

Their teachers said yesterday there had been rumours at school that the girls were planning an attack. The four come from secular backgrounds and have ties to Fatah, the teachers said.

In the Palestinian village of Beit Rima near Ramallah, Israeli forces demolished the home of a captured senior Hamas leader it says was involved in dozens of attacks that killed Israeli citizens.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said Wednesday he was "deeply concerned" following an Israeli air raid on Gaza City that left seven Palestinians dead and dozens wounded.

"He deplores the use of excessive force in a densely populated area and reiterates his opposition to extra-judicial killings," said a statement read by Annan's spokesman.

"While he recognises Israel's right of self-defence, the secretary general again call on Israel to conduct itself in a manner fully consistent with its obligations under international humanitarian law," it said.

Israel defended the missile strike by an F-16 fighter-bomber and two Apache helicopters, which killed seven Palestinians, including three Hamas members and four civilians.

Shortly after the F-16 strike, two Apache helicopters fired two missiles at the same area, witnesses said. That second attack raised the death toll and doubled the number of injured as it hit emergency service workers and onlookers staring at the wreckage from the first missile.