But political sources have said the warning is a calculated gesture by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon before his US visit.

Settlers vowed a last-minute appeal to Israel's highest court to block any attempt to remove them from unauthorised outposts that have long been slated for removal under the stalled US-backed "road map" to peace with the Palestinians.

US envoys are due in Israel next week to discuss Sharon's proposal that Israel take unilateral steps to "disengage from" the Palestinians, by removing most Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip, if the road map process remains blocked.

Palestinians fear Israel may then take a permanent hold on large parts of the West Bank, depriving them of land seized by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war and where they want a state.

Reciprocal steps

The road map, a series of reciprocal steps meant to lead to peace and a Palestinian state, requires the Palestinian Authority to rein-in armed fighters; it foresees Israel freezing settlement building in the occupied territories and taking down more than 100 outposts built since March 2001.

A spokesman at Sharon's office said on Thursday that nine outposts erected without government consent faced removal "at any time" after settlers failed to overturn an eviction order.

The order to quit the West Bank outposts may be "a good way of showing good faith" before Sharon's expected visit to Washington this month, a senior Israeli political source said.

Palestinians sceptical

Palestinians were sceptical of seeing outposts removed: "We are used to announcements from the Israelis that never happen," Palestinian cabinet minister Ghassan al-Khatib said.

A body is carried away from the
car hit by an Israeli missile

Most countries regard all the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza as illegal, but Israel disputes this.

A helicopter strike killed three militants from the Islamic Hamas group near a settlement in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday.

Israeli police were on high alert for possible bombings after Hamas, sworn to destroy Israel, vowed revenge.

Mystery explosion

Another Palestinian militant was killed in a mysterious explosion in the Rafah refugee camp of southern Gaza on Thursday, just before Israeli tanks rumbled in on what the army called a limited mission to destroy tunnels for smuggling arms.

The Palestinian Popular Resistance Committees said their Rafah field commander, Awni Kulab, was killed by an Israeli missile. The army said it had no one in the area at the time.

Also on Thursday, Israeli soldiers shot dead a 14-year-old Palestinian boy during a raid on a refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, medics and witnesses said.

Teenager killed

Palestinian security sources said Muhammad Uthman was killed when he was caught up in clashes while he was on his way to school. Three other people were also wounded in the incident, they said.

The deadlock between Israelis and Palestinians has embarrassed the US administration, which had hoped its road map would revive Middle East peace talks that stalled in 2000.

Israel is wary of alienating its main ally and financial backer, which has voiced misgivings over the expansion of settlements and Israel's construction of a massive barrier in the West Bank.

Assistant US Secretary of State William Burns, Stephen Hadley, President George Bush's deputy national security adviser, and the council's Middle East chief Elliot Abrams are expected in Israel next week to prepare for a White House meeting between Bush and Sharon in late March or early April, officials said.