Palestinian gunmen kill two in Jewish settlement

Clad as yeshiva students, militants invade home as family celebrates Sabbath

March 08, 2003|By COX NEWS SERVICE

JERUSALEM - Two Palestinian gunmen dressed as Jewish religious students infiltrated a settlement near the West Bank city of Hebron yesterday, killing at least two Israelis and injuring eight before being shot dead, authorities said.

The violence came as the Israeli army reoccupied land inside the Gaza Strip to try to stop rocket attacks on nearby Israeli towns.

The Palestinian militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack on the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba. The gunmen, dressed as yeshiva students, invaded a settler's home while the family celebrated their Jewish Sabbath meal, the army said.

The attackers shot and killed the husband and wife and wounded others before soldiers killed them, the army said.

Hamas has vowed to continue such attacks in retribution for Israel's military presence in the Palestinian territories. It also claimed responsibility for Wednesday's suicide bus bombing in Haifa that killed 14 Israelis and one American.

The Israeli army has conducted extensive operations in the Gaza Strip in recent weeks targeting Hamas militants and its leadership.

Amid the worsening security situation, Palestinian officials were scheduled to decide today whether to transfer some powers from leader Yasser Arafat, who the White House and Israel allege is linked to terror groups, to a new prime minister.

Arafat nominated his longtime deputy Mahmoud Abbas to fill the post this week.

Today's meeting of the Palestinian Liberation Organization's central council in the West Bank city of Ramallah would decide just what the mandate of the position would be.

Their decision would be followed by a session Monday of the Palestinian legislature, the body with authority to vote the prime minister post into being.

Arafat has been under intense pressure from the United States and the European Union to reform Palestinian affairs and appoint a powerful prime minister to take over the day-to-day running of his government.

Israelis and Palestinians are hoping that the naming of a Palestinian prime minister might ease tensions between the two sides amid 29 months of deadly violence.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has refused to meet with Arafat, saying he was a terrorist. Arafat denies links to terrorism.

Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, has not officially accepted the new job, telling news agencies yesterday that he would serve only if the position had significant power and was not just titular role.

"The position is not as important as the powers of the prime minister. ... I will respond positively or negatively after I know what powers the prime minister will have," Abbas said.

Abbas commands respect in Israel and the United States, yet he also retains credibility among Palestinians. He has met with Sharon. He also has spoken out against what he called the "military intifada," meaning suicide bomb attacks targeted at civilians, and he has urged Palestinians to use nonviolent methods to achieve their aim of statehood.

Israel's Gaza land seizure, aimed at preventing Palestinians from firing small, homemade Qassam rockets at Israeli border towns, marked a shift in army policy in the strip, land that has been under Palestinian Authority control since the mid-1990s.

Yesterday, about 100 Israeli tanks and military vehicles reoccupied the northern Gaza Strip, with troops seizing rooftops for outposts in a 4-mile-square area that borders Israel.

This came after more than two weeks of daily incursions into the strip.

Three Palestinians were killed after firing at a convoy of Jewish settlers, the army said. Soldiers escorting the convoy returned fire, killing the assailants, which the militant Islamic Jihad group claimed as members.

Col. Yoel Strick, the officer in charge of what Israeli Army Radio called a new "security zone," said the Israeli presence was open-ended and the boundaries could be expanded.

"We are holding a large area from which Qassam rockets have been launched recently, including in the last two days," Strick said. Asked whether Israel was reoccupying the area, he answered: "Yes, indeed."

Sharon's new right-wing coalition government has promised a tougher policy with Palestinian militants.

The new government also has announced its intention to continue expanding Jewish settlements, a move Palestinians regard as a provocation.

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