4 Jewish settlers die in West Bank attacks

Palestinian group claims responsibility for killings after Israeli missile strike

July 27, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Palestinian gunmen killed four Jewish settlers yesterday in two separate attacks on a desolate road in the West Bank, apparently to avenge this week's Israeli missile strike that killed at least 15 people in Gaza.

Three people - a husband, wife and their 15-year-old son - were shot to death inside a van. They were among seven family members on their way to visit relatives for the Jewish Sabbath. Two of the four surviving children were injured.

A few minutes later on the same road south of Hebron, another car came under fire. Israeli officials said a man was killed and two passengers wounded. It was not clear whether the same gunmen carried out the two attacks.

The Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group affiliated with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah party, claimed responsibility for the shootings and said they were just the start of a new wave of attacks.

Group leaders had said they were prepared to enter into a cease-fire accord with Israel in exchange for a withdrawal of Israeli troops from West Bank cities. Other militant organizations were also considering stopping attacks.

But those promises were retracted after the Israeli strike in Gaza on Tuesday, in which an F-16 pilot dropped a one-ton laser-guided bomb on an apartment building to kill Salah Shehadeh, a leader of the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas.

Also killed in the attack were Shehadeh's personal aide and at least 13 bystanders, many of them children. Israeli officials have apologized for the civilian casualties but said Shehadeh was responsible for orchestrating suicide bombings that killed or wounded hundreds.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres warned Thursday that the country could expect a wave of retaliatory strikes from Palestinian militant organizations. "I fear that innocent people will pay for it dearly," he said.

On Thursday, Rabbi Elimelech Shapira, 43, was shot and killed as he drove on a road in the northern West Bank, near the large settlement of Ariel. The father of eight headed a pre-military religious academy in the settlement of Alei Zahav. He was buried yesterday.

In other violence yesterday, Palestinians fired an anti-tank missile at an armored bus carrying Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip. The missile struck the rear of the bus, severely damaging it, but all the passengers were sitting up front and no injuries were reported.

And near the West Bank city of Nablus, the Israeli army said, it arrested a Palestinian who authorities said was planning to carry out a suicide bombing at Joseph's Tomb, a Jewish pilgrimage site. Also in the West Bank, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian during a sweep through Qalkiliya. He was shot while standing in his kitchen; the army said it was investigating.

The latest violence is occurring even as Israelis and Palestinians discuss ways to ease army restrictions on 700,000 West Bank Palestinians who have been under curfew for more than a month.

Over the past two weeks, the curfews have been gradually lifted during daylight hours. More permits are being issued for Palestinians to work in Israel, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has authorized releasing about 10 percent of tax revenue owed to the Palestinian Authority, about $45 million.

That money is due to be handed over next week, officials said yesterday. Israel had withheld it, saying it feared the money would be used to fund militant groups rather than ease difficult living conditions.

Sharon cautioned that the promised relief was contingent on a stop in violence. The Palestinian Authority said yesterday it was working to secure a cease-fire, but militant factions said that after the bombing in Gaza, they would ignore those arrangements.

Zvi Bar-Hai, head of the regional council for the Jewish settlements near Hebron, asserted that yesterday's attacks had nothing to do with the Gaza bombing.

"We've been in a war for two years in which mothers and parents and children have been killed," Bar-Hai said. "The people of Israel must understand that in a war, you don't play around by being nice. It's war. One must back the government and the army and fight these terrorists to the death."

Details about the shooting victims were difficult to obtain yesterday because of the Jewish Sabbath. The attack occurred at dusk, on a road that winds through dunes in the southern tip of the West Bank.

The first vehicle to come under fire was the van. The gunmen apparently fired from atop a dune, using one of the few, small trees as cover, as the vehicle passed the Zif Junction, southeast of Hebron. The seven family members inside were from Psagot, a Jewish settlement near Jerusalem, and were driving to stay with relatives in the area.

The dead couple's 12-year-old and 2-year-old sons were wounded, the army said. The gunmen escaped in a car, apparently in the direction of the Palestinian village of Yatta.

A few minutes later, four miles south on the same road, a white sedan came under fire. A man inside, driving north to Hebron, was killed and two others were injured. The car came to a stop on the side of the narrow road, its windshield peppered with bullet holes.

Soldiers and helicopters were searching the area last night, including in Yatta, where a curfew was imposed. Israeli government spokesman David Baker said the shootings are "graphic proof of the extent of Palestinian terror and how totally devoted they are to killing innocent Israeli civilians."

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