3 Israelis killed in West Bank ambush
Published: Friday, January 24, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 23, 2003 at 9:57 p.m.
HEBRON, West Bank - Palestinian gunmen opened fire Thursday on three Israelis walking near a settlement in the West Bank, killing all of them, witnesses and rescue officials said.
The militant Islamic Hamas group took responsibility, issuing a leaflet saying the shooting was retaliation for attacks by Israeli settlers and the military against Palestinians and their property in the city of Hebron, known as a Hamas stronghold.
The attack occurred at the Beit Haggai intersection near a settlement in the Hebron hills.
It came just five days before Israelis vote for a new government.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who is running for re-election with a policy of harsh military reprisals against Palestinians following violence, is favored over his dovish opponent, Amram Mitzna, who favors negotiations with the Palestinians.
In the past, Palestinian attacks on the eve of Israeli elections have helped hard-line parties like Sharon's Likud, galvanizing Israeli fears of terror attacks and desires for reprisals.
About 450 Israeli settlers live in three enclaves in the middle of Hebron, making it a flashpoint for violence.
Sharon has said Israel cannot give up the hotly disputed holy site in Hebron - the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where the Bible says Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are buried. Mitzna favors withdrawal.
Israel TV reported that the Israeli vehicle was the target of a Palestinian ambush. Large numbers of Israeli soldiers were searching the area, the report said.
Zvi Katsover, mayor of the nearby Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba, said that earlier soldiers were firing flares in the air to find armed Palestinians.
"This was apparently the unit that was chasing the terrorists and engaged them, and the results are known," he told Israel TV.
Tensions have been high in Hebron since Nov. 16, when 12 Israeli soldiers and police officers were killed in an ambush.
The attack prompted the Israeli army to take over the Palestinian-controlled section of the city.
On Jan. 17, Palestinians shot and killed an Israeli settler in a house just outside Hebron.
Also Thursday, Israeli forces detained the wife of a jailed Palestinian radical accused of dispatching the gunmen who assassinated an Israeli Cabinet minister, relatives said Thursday.
Israeli government officials refused to comment. A Palestinian human rights group and relatives of Ablah Saadat, 47, said she was arrested as she tried to cross from the West Bank to Jordan. She had planned to fly to Brazil to attend the six-day World Social Forum which began Thursday, according to the human rights group Palestine Monitor.
Her husband, Ahmed Saadat, is the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a radical PLO faction whose gunmen assassinated ultra-nationalist Cabinet Minister Rehavam Zeevi, 75, at a Jerusalem hotel on Oct. 17, 2001.
The group said it was avenging its former leader, Mustafa Zibri, who was killed in a targeted Israeli rocket attack two months before the Zeevi assassination.
Ahmed Saadat and four others accused of involvement in Zeevi's killing are being held in a Palestinian jail in Jericho as part of a deal that helped end Israel's 34-day siege of Yasser Arafat's West Bank headquarters last spring.
Saadat has not been put on trial, while the four others were convicted by a makeshift Palestinian court of killing Zeevi.
In the Gaza Strip on Thursday, a Palestinian man dressed as a woman was caught trying to cross a military checkpoint shortly after he fired toward a Jewish settlement, military officials said. The man then led troops to where he had stashed an AK-47 assault rifle and hand grenades.
Also Thursday, an Israeli group that tracks Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip released a report showing a disproportionate amount of money from the Israeli budget going to settlements.
More than 200,000 Israelis live in communities dotting the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the lands claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.
The report by the Israeli group Peace Now says $450 million from the 2001 state budget went to settlements in the West Bank for housing, road construction and development of industrial areas, as well as income tax benefits. Peace Now said settlers get $1,500 more in government spending per capita than those living inside Israel proper.
"The policy of the Israeli government is to try to increase the number of settlers beyond the Green Line and to make their life and economy better than life in Israel," said Peace Now spokesman Yariv Oppenheimer. "It's a way to achieve a political goal."
Peace Now said its data on settlement spending is incomplete because the money is scattered throughout the budget. The total 2001 state budget was $50 billion.
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