TAPUAH, West Bank - No one is sure who killed three Palestinians in a roadside shooting Thursday night, but the spirit that might have driven the crime abides in this hilltop Jewish settlement south of Nablus.
It's the spirit of Meir Kahane, the Israeli rabbi-politician who, before his assassination in New York in 1990, led the now-outlawed Kach movement and advocated expulsion of Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Kahane's son Binyamin lived here before he was ambushed and killed with his wife on a West Bank road. Their children still live here with relatives, and Israeli authorities link members of this community with the Kahanes' legacy.
While the Israeli government and the mainstream settler organization, the Yesha Council, condemned Thursday's killings in the strongest terms, Nachshon Walls, seated inside his small concrete-block bungalow here, had only praise.
"Kol ha kavod," said Walls, 42, using a Hebrew expression he translates as, "More power to you."
Israeli media reported that gunmen in a white car parked along a road outside the West Bank city of Hebron fired on a Palestinian car late Thursday as it passed by carrying members of a Palestinian family to a wedding party.
One of the assailants, possibly armed with an assault rifle, then walked to the car and shot the eight Arabs inside, killing two adults and a 3-month-old baby and wounding five others, including the bride and groom. The gunmen's car then reportedly headed toward the southern town of Kiryat Gat, inside Israel.
An organization calling itself the "Committee for Road Safety" took responsibility for the attack in messages to the media. Many Israelis have been attacked on the roads near Jewish settlements. Army and other security officials could not confirm yesterday whether such a group exists. A group with the same name became known during the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s and is associated with Kach.
Avi Dichter, the domestic intelligence chief, told parliament this week that a single Jewish terror cell was operating in the Israeli-occupied territories, responsible for shootings of Palestinians near Ramallah and Hebron. He cited Kach and Kahane Hai, the banned group founded by Binyamin Kahane, as leaders of the settlers' violent wing.
Shahar Ayalon, the commander of Israeli police in the West Bank, told Israel Radio yesterday that police suspect the killing was motivated by revenge for fatal road attacks on Israelis, including Kahane.
Walls, an immigrant from Ohio who is a neighbor of the Binyamin Kahane family and named a son after Meir, knows something about revenge. He was sentenced to life in prison for shooting a pregnant Palestinian woman to death as she was on her way to the hospital in 1990, but served only eight years and three months after former President Ezer Weizman reduced the term. He says he shot at the woman's car to avenge the torture and murder of two Jewish boys in Jerusalem. He is now "retired" from violent acts, but notes, "In the Torah it says, `If someone comes to kill you, kill him first.'"
"The fact that someone is willing to kill an Arab family means it has reached the point where people are so sick of their own lives being threatened that they're hitting back," he said. "If they want to fight dirty, they can't complain if we fight dirty."
If Thursday's killing was carried out by settlers - and only the location so far suggests that it was - it would be the most extreme form of settler revenge so far in the 10-month conflict with the Palestinians, but far from the first.
B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, reports that before Thursday's attack, seven Palestinians had been killed by Israeli civilians in the occupied territories. Palestinians have killed 49 settlers.
Settlers have also wrecked property and burned fields belonging to neighboring Palestinian villages, and engaged in large-scale riots that had to be broken up by police. On Monday, a car belonging to a settler blew up in Kiryat Arba, near Hebron, with a trunk full of weapons and explosives.
"The Arabs are more afraid of us than of the army," says Moshe Ben Ya'akov, Walls' next-door neighbor and enough of a veteran of violent demonstrations that he says he's now dubbed a habitual offender by the authorities. "We're less predictable and less tied by rules."
Ben Ya'akov says he essentially shares Walls' view that Thursday's killing was "a good thing - nothing wrong with it."
"Unlike the government, most people here are still normal - at least in this part of the country. There's only so long that people can put up with this kind of situation," he said of Palestinian attacks."`An eye for an eye' is a concept that came from the Bible. Sometimes I think it should be `two or three eyes for an eye.'" He belongs to Tapuah's defense militia, geared to respond to Palestinian attacks before the army shows up, but believes offense is the best defense.