JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in an interview Thursday Israel should have "eliminated" Yasser Arafat during its 1982 Lebanon invasion.
The interview was published as Israeli troops killed two Palestinian gunmen in the Gaza Strip and reflected the depth of animosity in the region after 16 months of violence.
Sharon — who has Arafat surrounded by tanks in his West Bank offices — expressed regret that Israel had not hit the Palestinian leader when it had the chance two decades ago.
Recriminations over his remarks and the latest outbreak of violence overshadowed international efforts to persuade the United States to resume high-level mediation in the conflict.
"In Lebanon it was agreed that Arafat would not be eliminated. To tell the truth, I'm sorry we didn't eliminate him," Sharon told the Israeli newspaper Maariv.
Sharon directed the invasion of Lebanon as defense minister, sending tanks and troops to the outskirts of Beirut where they bottled up Arafat and his PLO fighters before an internationally brokered deal led to their evacuation by sea.
Sharon's remarks drew angry condemnation from Palestinian officials, who have accused the right-wing prime minister of trying to carry out a decades-old vendetta to get rid of Arafat.
"I think this reflects what has been always said — that Sharon is trying to finish what he began in 1982," Cabinet member Saeb Erekat said. "And for prime ministers to announce openly their gangster intention is a reflection of what kind of government we're dealing with."
But government spokesman Raanan Gissin said Israel had no plans to oust or kill the Palestinian president. "Today Israel's policy is not to harm him personally," Gissin said.
Sharon has declared Arafat "irrelevant" and tried to isolate him, but he was quoted as telling Maariv he would again consider him a peace partner if he met all Israel's security demands.
Fresh violence erupted shortly before Middle East envoys from the United Nations, the European Union and Russia were due to meet U.S. officials in Washington to discuss the conflict, which has defied all international efforts to broker a cease-fire.
Israeli forces killed two Palestinian gunmen from the Islamic militant group Hamas who ambushed a convoy headed for a Jewish settlement in the southern Gaza Strip.
The gunmen detonated a mine planted on the road to the Gush Katif settlement bloc as a truckload of Thai workers passed, and then opened fire on troops in the convoy, the army said. Soldiers shot the men dead. No one in the convoy was hurt.
Shortly after the attack, two mortar shells hit one of the Gush Katif settlements, injuring one Israeli, the army said.
Palestinian witnesses said Israeli forces entered the nearby Palestinian refugee camp Khan Younis after the mortar attack and detained 10 Palestinians at a Gaza Strip checkpoint.
Palestinian militants have recently carried out a series of deadly attacks to avenge Israel's killing of militant leaders. A A Palestinian suicide bomber slightly wounded two agents of Israel's Shin Bet security service on Wednesday.
Thursday's violence followed talks in Egypt in which Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said he asked Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to make every effort to pressure Arafat to stop violence and rein in militants.
The meeting took place at a time of widening discord between Washington and its Arab and European allies over the conflict.
At least 825 Palestinians and 249 Israelis have been killed in an uprising against Israeli occupation that erupted in September 2000 after peace talks broke down.
The United States has toughened its stance against Arafat in recent weeks, with U.S. President George W. Bush publicly expressing his disappointment with Arafat.
Washington has suspended mediation and said it "understands" Israel's decision to confine Arafat in Ramallah. Arab states and the European Union have expressed concern that marginalising Arafat was dangerous and would hurt U.S. interests.