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West Bank Couple Were Shot to Death on Their Doorstep

Mideast: Pregnant wife, soldier are latest victims of Palestinian incursions into Israeli settlements.

June 09, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KARMEI TZUR, West Bank — Yael Sorek and her husband, Ayal, probably heard the gunfire from within their drab trailer on the outskirts of this Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Despite the dead-of-night darkness, they went to the door, still in their pajamas.

Two Palestinian intruders gunned them down, spraying their mobile home with bullets. Seconds later, an Israeli army patrol roared onto the scene. In a 10-minute gun battle, the soldiers killed one of the Palestinians, and the other fled.

One soldier was killed in addition to Yael, 24, who was in the late stages of pregnancy, and Ayal, 23, an off-duty soldier from an elite infantry unit. Two other settlers and five soldiers were wounded.

The attack at Karmei Tzur early Saturday was the latest in a string of deadly raids on Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip carried out by Palestinians who want to eject Jews from Palestinian territory.

The Soreks lived in one of 10 trailers scattered on a slope a good 200 yards from the fence that encases Karmei Tzur. Its establishment is part of a plan to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank, despite U.S. and other international calls for an end to the practice.

Also Saturday, the Israeli navy said it intercepted two armed Palestinians swimming in the Mediterranean toward the Dugit settlement in the Gaza Strip, killing at least one of them, and three other Palestinians were killed in an explosion near another settlement in Gaza.

And late Saturday, at least two Palestinian gunmen tried to infiltrate the Yitzhar settlement near the West Bank city of Nablus. At least one of them was killed, and four Israeli soldiers nearby were wounded, the army said.

The attacks came as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon prepared to depart for meetings in Washington with President Bush. Sharon's office condemned the attacks and, as is customary, blamed them on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and his inability to stop violence. Sharon is expected to try to persuade Bush to agree with Israel's plans to remove Arafat from the regional equation.

The cluster of trailers attacked early Saturday was placed outside Karmei Tzur in February 2001, the army said, and was named for Shmuel Gillis, a doctor from the settlement who was killed at that time in a Palestinian ambush.

"It's hard to secure these settlements, but it's not impossible," said Brig. Gen. Amos Ben-Avraham, the Israeli army division commander for the region. "Sometimes we succeed, and sometimes we don't."

The mobile homes were deserted Saturday at midday. The one where the Soreks had lived was roped off with police tape. Blood was splattered by the door on the wall of the trailer and on the patch of pavement in front. Residents had used blankets and sheets, weighted down by plastic canisters and wooden chairs, to try to cover the blood. Because Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath, no one could clean up until after nightfall, an army spokesman said.

Also because of the Sabbath, no one from the staunchly religious settlement would speak to reporters Saturday.

Ben-Avraham, the army commander, said two Palestinian assailants apparently crossed a barren valley from the south and slipped into the Karmei Tzur outskirts about 2:30 a.m. No fence protected the trailers, and an army watchtower that guards them is staffed only during the day.

An army patrol did notice the intruders, however, and was rushing toward them when they opened fire, Ben-Avraham said. One Palestinian armed with an M-16 and a knife was apparently the one who killed the Soreks, while the second assailant, armed with a Kalashnikov, escaped. The gun battle lasted long enough for both Palestinians to repeatedly change magazines, firing off more than 100 rounds, Ben-Avraham said.

Ben-Avraham said the Soreks must have come to the door when they heard the gunfire. Their bodies were found at the doorway, he said.

One assailant escaped toward the Palestinian village of Halhul, less than two miles to the south. The army imposed a curfew on Halhul and was carrying out house-to-house searches.

At the Soreks' mobile home, olive-colored laundry hung on the clothesline. They were apparently a studious couple; their small trailer was full of religious books. A tiny kitchen filled one end, a small bed the other. A menorah sat on the microwave.

Karmei Tzur, a collection of red-roofed houses established in 1984, sits amid Palestinian villages about four miles north of Hebron. Flanked by vineyards, it is home to about 100 Jewish families.

The more than 150 Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been frequent targets of Palestinian militants. Palestinians--and many Israelis--want the settlements dismantled as part of a comprehensive peace agreement. The settlements chop up Palestinian land and make a territorially contiguous Palestinian state impossible.

But Sharon, who has championed the settler movement for decades, refuses to consider evacuating the settlements. Studies by Israeli human rights organizations B'Tselem and Peace Now showed that about three dozen settlements have been created in the 15 months since Sharon took office.

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