JERUSALEM — Five Israelis were shot dead and four were seriously wounded in attacks by Palestinians on Sunday, but the Israeli army pulled out of the West Bank city of Bethlehem and neighboring Beit Jala anyway.
The shootings came as debate intensified over how much Israel has achieved by the reoccupation of Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank, launched after the Oct. 17 assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi.
The worst attack Sunday came in downtown Hadera, north of Tel Aviv on Israel's heavily populated coastal plain. Two Palestinian gunmen, driving slowly down the city's main street in a red four-wheel-drive vehicle, opened fire outside the library about 3 p.m. They killed four women and seriously injured three other people before plainclothes detectives shot and killed them.
Earlier in the day, a 22-year-old off-duty soldier was shot and killed as he drove near Kibbutz Metzer, near the border with the West Bank.
The militant Islamic Jihad organization claimed responsibility for the Hadera attack and distributed videotaped final testimonies of the two gunmen. An armed wing of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction claimed responsibility for killing the soldier.
After nightfall Sunday, an Israeli was wounded in the chest and arm in another drive-by shooting, this time near the northern West Bank town of Jenin.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer on Sunday night to plan a response to the attacks. A senior official said Israel would retaliate.
But at the same time, the prime minister's office issued a statement saying Sharon "instructed the defense establishment to continue preparations for withdrawing Israeli army forces from Beit Jala and Bethlehem in accordance with terms that have been set and Palestinian adherence to them."
"They are going to withdraw from Bethlehem tonight, God willing," Col. Jibril Rajoub, Palestinian security chief in the West Bank, told reporters after meeting with Israeli security officials.
Palestinian security officials and an Israeli army spokesman reported that the withdrawal was underway shortly after 10 p.m. It was completed without incident before dawn.
Israel agreed in principle Friday to withdraw from the two towns but delayed the pullout after Palestinian gunmen in Bethlehem and Beit Jala opened fire on Gilo, a Jewish neighborhood that Israel considers part of Jerusalem. It said it would then begin a staged withdrawal from the rest of the areas occupied since Oct. 19.
The attacks inside Israel on Sunday make the situation "more complicated, more tense," Peres told Israel Radio. But he urged that the scheduled withdrawals begin "because we do it place after place, and we don't connect one event to another event."
Israeli police said they had been on high alert in and around Hadera because of intelligence warnings of an attack. The town lies just seven miles west of the border with the West Bank and has been targeted frequently by Palestinian militants.
But the gunmen, later identified by the army as Palestinian policemen, were able to slip into Hadera's commercial heart in daylight. They drove a car bearing Israeli license plates and fired M-16s.
The attack undercut the government's contention that the presence of large numbers of troops and tanks in Palestinian-controlled areas in and around six West Bank towns and cities had created a buffer zone. It also underscored the uphill task facing U.S. and European diplomats who have been working around the clock to roll back the military operation Israel launched after the assassination of Zeevi.
The Bush administration has been pressuring Israel to withdraw from all the territory it reoccupied, to stop targeted killings of Palestinian militants and to never again enter land it handed over to the Palestinians under the terms of the 1993 Oslo peace accords. The Israeli government has insisted that it will leave reoccupied areas only if quiet prevails and if it reaches agreement with the Palestinian Authority to rein in gunmen.
Even before the shootings Sunday, commentators and politicians were questioning whether the reoccupation of Palestinian-controlled lands and buildings had improved security or strengthened Israel's diplomatic position.
More than 40 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have died in fighting that has raged between Palestinian gunmen and troops since the Israeli operation began. Dozens of Palestinians have been wounded. Before Sunday, one Israeli had died. The army says it has arrested, killed or injured dozens of wanted militants and has provided a buffer between the West Bank and pre-1967 Israeli communities.
Military analyst Alex Fishman, in a front-page editorial for the mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot, said the army learned during the operation that it can hunt for militants even in urban areas while suffering few, if any, casualties.