3 Israelis killed in West Bank

Palestinian militants claim responsibility for attacks


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

The attack, near a group of Jewish settlements south of Jerusalem, was one of a pair of roadside shootings in the West Bank yesterday and 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.

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

The car sped off, and the Israeli military began a search for the gunmen.

About an hour later, a second shooting took place on a highway near the Eli settlement, north of Jerusalem. Gunmen in a car fired at Israeli civilians standing by the side of the road, 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 Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group loosely tied to the Fatah organization of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said the militia had carried out both attacks, Israel Radio reported. But those claims could not be confirmed.

Israeli forces have arrested hundreds of suspected militants in the West Bank in recent weeks, prompting vows of retaliation.

In a separate incident later yesterday, an Israeli police team shot and killed a suspected Palestinian militant, Nihad Abu Ghanim, during an arrest operation in a village near Jenin in the northern West Bank. The police officers shot back after the suspect 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 they might have been intended to embarrass him or to serve as a warning against disarming 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 diplomatic initiative known as the "road map."

Abbas has avoided confronting the fighters for fear that using force could spark civil war. Instead, he has sought to coax Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas into the political system in hopes that they will disarm on their own. Hamas plans to run in parliamentary elections scheduled in January but has refused to lay down its 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 of violence, 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 predicting a rise in the level of violence by Palestinian militants in the West Bank after Israel's evacuation of all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four others in an isolated corner of the northern West Bank.

Settler leaders and right-wing Israeli politicians accused Sharon, who ordered the Gaza withdrawal despite fierce opposition from Jewish settlers, of fostering fresh 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. He said he was 20 yards from the intersection when the attack took place.

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

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times

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