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Gunmen Burst Into Home, Kill 5 Israeli Settlers

June 21, 2002|MARY CURTIUS and TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Five Jewish settlers, including a woman and three of her children, were killed Thursday night after Palestinian gunmen burst into a home, took hostages and fought a gun battle with Israeli troops. The attack came as the army widened its operations throughout the West Bank.

At least one Palestinian assailant was also killed in the raid on the Itamar settlement near the West Bank city of Nablus north of here. Eight Israelis were wounded, including another child.

Before dawn today, Israeli troops and armor moved into Nablus and began taking Palestinian prisoners. It was the latest incursion as the army fulfilled new orders to seize Palestinian territory following a wave of suicide bombings. Hundreds of Palestinians have been arrested and homes searched in four other West Bank cities and several villages.

Israel issued a limited call-up of reservists ahead of what is expected to be a protracted military campaign.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cut short a public appearance Thursday night when he learned of the Itamar attack, which came on the heels of two suicide bombings that killed 26 Israelis in 36 hours. An emergency Cabinet meeting was called for today.

Sharon spoke to President Bush briefly by telephone, the conversation largely focused on the current round of attacks against Israelis.

It was the second infiltration in three weeks into Itamar, home to some of Israel's most militant settlers. On May 28, three teenage settlers were killed by a Palestinian gunman on a basketball court in the settlement.

In Thursday night's attack, the gunmen rushed into the unfenced settlement and opened fire as they ran into a house, witnesses said. Inside, they apparently shot to death a woman identified as Rachel Shabo and three of her children, ages 16, 12 and 5, Israeli state radio reported. A neighbor who rushed to help was also killed. Other children in the large family reportedly saved themselves by hiding in bedrooms and the bathroom.

Soldiers who converged on the house shot it out with the Palestinians in a gun battle that lasted nearly two hours. One of the Palestinians was killed, the army said. A second body believed to be that of the other Palestinian was found in the ruins of the house, a portion of which caught fire and burned.

"We heard gunfire and felt that this was something more than target practice," settler Yaakov Heiman told Israeli television. "We heard shouting that a terrorist had entered the settlement.... It is just awful."

Two Palestinian groups claimed responsibility for the attack. One is an armed offshoot of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, whose leader was assassinated by Israel last year. The other is the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is affiliated with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.

Arafat on Thursday urged an end to attacks on Israeli civilians.

Many Palestinians distinguish between attacks inside Israel and those that target settlers and soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, land captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War that Palestinians claim.

Anticipating another Israeli military offensive following a spate of deadly suicide bombings, Palestinians on Thursday voiced both dread and defiance.

In Bethlehem, Kalkilya, Jenin, Tulkarm and many villages, tens of thousands of Palestinians were confined to their homes by military curfews that the Israeli army said would last "until the missions are completed." In Jenin, more than 2,000 men were rounded up overnight, although most were released by morning. Troops conducted house-to-house searches in many communities as security officials warned that more suicide bombers were heading for Israeli cities.

Israeli forces met with little resistance. Palestinian police and other security officers disappeared from their posts and militants went into hiding. None of the armed men who are usually a common sight on the streets here in Ramallah could be seen Thursday. It was a city visibly hunkering down for the anticipated invasion.

Palestinians seemed to sense that this time, Israeli fury is so great that the government may soon unleash a military operation that could dwarf Operation Defensive Shield. That offensive, launched in March after a bomber killed 29 Israelis attending a Passover dinner, was the largest military sweep through the West Bank since the Middle East War.

The back-to-back suicide attacks in Jerusalem this week have triggered a chorus of calls for the government to take harsh action.

The Itamar raid was sure to solidify Sharon's resolve.

"We are in the middle of a war," he told a conference in Tel Aviv on Thursday night, after being notified of the violence in Itamar. "A hard war, a cruel war that Palestinian terrorists are carrying out against old people, women and children."

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