HEBRON, Israeli-Occupied West Bank — Israeli security forces Sunday ambushed and shot to death three Palestinians, one of whom the army called a key gunman for the militant group Hamas.
The three men--later identified as Jihad Ghulmeh, Adel Falah and Tarek Natsheh--were sitting in a white Subaru sedan, apparently preparing to mount a terrorist attack, when they were ambushed by a special border patrol unit, an army spokesman said.
According to the army, there was an exchange of gunfire. But Palestinian witnesses said the Israelis sprayed the Subaru with machine-gun fire before the three men saw them.
Maj. Gen. Ilan Biran, commander of Israeli forces in the West Bank, said that two of the three had been "wanted for a long time."
Israel Television later said Ghulmeh was believed to have been a leader of Iziddin al-Qassam, the military unit of the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas. He was said to have led a cell that has carried out nine attacks on Israeli settlers and soldiers in the Hebron area in the past two years. Falah was thought to have participated in some of those attacks. No information was available on Natsheh.
Two Kalashnikov rifles, a pistol, ammunition and a leaflet claiming responsibility for the attack the men apparently planned to carry out were found in the car, according to Israel Television.
The army slapped a curfew on Hebron shortly after the shooting, which erupted in a Hamas stronghold of southern Hebron, the only town in the West Bank where Jews and Arabs live side by side. About 400 heavily guarded Jews live in the heart of Hebron among about 80,000 Palestinians.
By noon, the West Bank's second-largest city felt like a ghost town, with only a handful of Jewish settlers and soldiers walking the streets. The settlers, dressed in holiday finery, were celebrating the seven-day Jewish holiday of Passover. They welcomed the news that the Palestinians had been killed.
"We have feared this cell for many months, and now we really have feelings of a true holiday," said Zvi Katzover, the mayor of Kiryat Arba, a militant settlement on the outskirts of Hebron that is home to about 6,000 Jews.
But Biran warned that celebrations were premature.
"The work isn't over," Biran told Israel Radio. "There are still many squads at large. We need to restrain ourselves; there's no room for celebrations."
Ghulmeh is believed to have led the March 19 ambush of a bus near Kiryat Arba in which two Israelis were killed.
He also is believed to have been involved in a November ambush near Kiryat Arba in which a rabbi, Amiram Olami, was shot to death, and one last July in which a 17-year-old Israeli girl was shot and killed.
Hamas and a smaller organization, Islamic Jihad, have vowed to wreck the September, 1993, peace accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization that granted the Palestinians limited autonomy in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho.
Appearing on the ABC News program "This Week With David Brinkley," Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on Sunday criticized PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat for not taking stronger steps to control terrorism, but he firmly insisted that the violence will not derail the peace process.
"We have one alternative: to work with the partner which is ready for peace, headed by Chairman Arafat," Rabin said. "We have to comply to what we are committed to on the condition that he can cope with terrorism originated from areas under his control. This is simple."
Since Islamic terrorists launched two suicide attacks April 9, Arafat has ordered a crackdown on militants in areas controlled by his Palestinian Authority. Palestinian officials say more than 300 Hamas and Islamic Jihad supporters have been arrested since those two attacks.
Rabin said Sunday that such measures are not enough. "I don't believe that (Arafat) has tried seriously" to control terrorism, he said. "Here and there, there were signs in the last two weeks of some efforts on his part, but fighting this kind of terrorism . . . needs determination, readiness to use (his) own armed law enforcement forces, to take measures to bring people to the courts, to put them in jail."
Also appearing on the program, Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath conceded that the Palestinian leader did not use "all the police powers very early in the game to enforce his rule." Shaath said that Arafat's concern was to avoid "the typical story of Third World violations of human rights" but insisted that the Palestinian Authority is now committed to preventing terrorism "in every way we can . . . short of a civil war."
Arafat recently ordered secret military courts in Gaza to bring Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists to trial. Three Islamic Jihad activists already have been sentenced in the courts, and two Hamas members were convicted and sentenced Sunday.