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Three Israelis Shot Dead by Militants in West Bank

A total of four people are hurt in the drive-by shooting and a similar incident. A suspected Palestinian fighter is killed near Jenin.

October 17, 2005|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Three Israelis were killed and three others wounded Sunday in a drive-by shooting by Palestinian militants in the West Bank, the Israeli military said.

The attack, near a block of Jewish settlements south of Jerusalem, was the deadliest strike against Israelis since their nation's military completed its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and a portion of the West Bank last month. It was followed by a similar shooting Sunday north of Jerusalem.

The first attack took place at a busy junction near the Gush Etzion settlement block. Witnesses said gunfire poured from a passing Palestinian car, striking several people at a crowded roadside stop used by buses and hitchhikers. Two of the dead were 21 and the third was 15, Israeli media reported.

The Israeli military has begun a search for the shooters.

About an hour later, the second shooting took place on a highway near the Eli settlement, north of Jerusalem. Gunmen in a car fired upon Israeli civilians standing on the roadside, wounding one, the Israeli army said. It was not immediately clear whether the same gunmen carried out both attacks.

Callers claiming to be from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a Palestinian militant group, said the militia had carried out both attacks, Israel Radio reported. But those claims could not be confirmed. Al Aqsa is loosely tied to the Fatah faction of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel has arrested hundreds of suspected militants in the West Bank in recent weeks, prompting vows of retaliation.

In a separate incident later Sunday, a special Israeli police team fatally shot a suspected Palestinian militant in a village near Jenin in the northern West Bank. The police shot the suspect after he opened fire, a military spokeswoman said.

The roadside shootings come at a bad moment for Abbas, who is scheduled to meet with President Bush in Washington on Thursday, and may have been intended to embarrass him or to serve as a warning against trying to disarm militant groups.

Israel and the Bush administration have pressed Abbas to rein in armed militants as part of Palestinian commitments under the U.S.-sponsored initiative known as the road map.

Abbas for now has avoided confronting the fighters, apparently for fear that using force could spark civil war. Instead, he has sought to coax groups such as Hamas into the political process in hopes they will disarm on their own. Hamas plans to run in parliamentary elections scheduled for January but has refused to forgo weapons.

"Israel took a number of humanitarian steps to ease up on the Palestinians, including the removal of roadblocks. The Palestinians, unfortunately, responded by exploiting these humanitarian gestures," said David Baker, an official in the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "We once again demand that the Palestinian Authority exert its control and dismantle these organizations."

The outbreak, coming as Israel stepped up security on the eve of the weeklong Sukkot holiday, followed weeks of relative calm in the West Bank. Two Israeli teenagers were killed during a shooting in June near the town of Hebron. In August, an Israeli settler shot and killed four Palestinian laborers in what Sharon labeled an act of "Jewish terror."

Israeli security officials have been forecasting a rise in the level of violence by Palestinian militants in the West Bank since Israel's evacuation of all 21 Gaza settlements and four others in the northern West Bank.

Settlers and right-wing politicians accused Sharon, who led the Gaza pullout despite fierce opposition from settlers, of fostering violence in the West Bank.

"Our people were at the hitchhiking stop. A car passed by, firing a cluster of shots, hitting our people. It drove away very fast," Shaul Goldstein, chairman of the Gush Etzion local council, told Israel Radio. Goldstein said he was 20 yards from the intersection when the attack took place.

He said a reduction in the number of roadblocks in the West Bank had made it easier for militants to carry out such assaults.

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