In one of the most daring and deadly combat operations in 11 months of raging violence, Palestinian commandos crept into an Israeli army outpost guarding a Jewish settlement early Saturday, then sprayed stunned soldiers with gunfire and grenades. Three Israelis were killed and seven wounded before two guerrillas were also shot dead.
Later Saturday, three members of an Israeli family were killed in a Palestinian ambush as they drove on a road that skirts the West Bank just northwest of Jerusalem. Two children in the car were wounded.
Israeli retaliation was swift: Early today, tanks and warplanes bombarded half a dozen Palestinian police posts in the Gaza Strip, including the main headquarters in Gaza City, witnesses said. At least one Palestinian was killed.
The raid on the heavily fortified army base in southern Gaza reflected a widening participation in the armed uprising as diplomacy remains moribund and international mediation is absent.
A radical Palestinian organization that has been relatively dormant in recent months, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Israeli officials and commentators were shocked by the apparent ease with which the guerrillas infiltrated the base at the tiny settlement, and numerous fingers were being pointed. Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer ordered an immediate investigation.
One of the attackers was killed quickly, but it took hours before a second was caught hiding in a greenhouse and killed, according to military sources. One other Palestinian escaped.
"I would have expected different results in face-to-face combat," said Maj. Gen. Doron Almog, commander of the Israeli army's southern division. "This specific incident reflects a new form of audacity that we have not witnessed until now."
In immediate reprisal, Israel closed north-south roads in Gaza to Palestinian transit. Palestinian security forces evacuated offices and buildings in anticipation of airstrikes.
The raid began at about 3 a.m. in Bedolah, a quiet settlement where some 220 religious Jews grow fruit. The gunmen evaded an electric fence and night-vision equipment to sneak up to the edge of the base and then set off explosives, apparently to distract the soldiers sleeping or resting inside.
"It took me a second to understand what was going on," said a sergeant on guard duty who described the attack in detail to reporters. "Within seconds from hearing the shots, I was shooting."
As the shooting started, Maj. Gil Oz, the 30-year-old regiment deputy commander, roared up to the post in his jeep and leaped out. He was quickly gunned down. His medic, Staff Sgt. Kobi Nir, 21, rushed to his aid. The Palestinians shot and killed him too.
In addition to the third soldier killed, at least seven others, many of them caught in their beds asleep, were wounded, one critically. In a gun battle that lasted about 10 minutes, one of the Palestinians was killed. But a second commando fled.
"I saw my deputy commander being killed," said the sergeant, who declined to give his name. "They [the Palestinians] were not so professional, but they seemed to know what they were doing. They had good information. This place is full of Palestinian workers and informants."
Backed by five or six tanks that rushed to the scene from another base, the soldiers fanned out across the settlement in search of the fleeing Palestinian. The Israelis said the second attacker they killed was making his way toward homes where settlers live.
"We tracked him to the greenhouses . . . about 50 yards from the settlers' homes," said the sergeant. "Finally, he poked his head out, and we shot him . . . right under an eye. . . . If he had had only a few more minutes, it would have ended badly for the settlers."
The sergeant said the dead man was armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a knife and wire cutters, probably to penetrate the barbed-wire fences that encircle all settlements in the Gaza Strip. He was dressed in shorts and wearing magazine clips around his waist, although he carried the bullets in his pockets.
The military wing of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine disputed the account and accused the Israelis of capturing and then executing the second gunman, Hisham abu Jamus, at close range.
Abu Jamus, 24, and the other gunman, Amin abu Hatab, 26, were buried in massive funerals later Saturday in Gaza. Both were from the especially volatile town of Rafah near Gaza's border with Egypt--where the retaliatory Israeli attacks were underway early today. One had worked for Palestinian security forces until the intifada began in late September, and the other had applied to do so.
Early today, Israeli tanks and bulldozers invaded Rafah from three directions and demolished two police posts before withdrawing hours later. As mosques called on residents to "resist," at least one Palestinian was killed in a ferocious gun battle.
Just before dawn today, Israeli F-16 and F-15 warplanes bombarded police buildings in Gaza City, witnesses and Israeli state radio said. A four-story building was destroyed. Two other Palestinian security posts in nearby Deir al Balah also were hit, either by tank fire or ground-launched missiles.
Despite the DFLP claim of responsibility, Israeli officials blamed the violence on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and accused him of escalating the bloody conflict.
The gunmen who raided the army post left behind videotapes before launching their mission. The tapes show them seated among Kalashnikovs and mortar shells in front of a Palestinian flag and pictures of DFLP leader Nayef Hawatmeh.
Quoting extensively from the Koran--somewhat unusual for this particularly secular faction--the men said on video and in printed statements that they were donating their lives to God and the Palestinian cause.
"I am taking revenge for all the Palestinian martyrs," Abu Hatab said. "This is to prove to the world, to the United States and to the Zionist enemy that all Palestinians are of one body, one unit."
Hawatmeh, the DFLP leader, has been based in Damascus, the Syrian capital, for years, and the movement has not played a major role in the current fighting.
In one of its last major terrorist acts in Israel, in 1988, members threw a Molotov cocktail at the car of then-Trade Minister Ariel Sharon, today Israel's prime minister.
In October 1999, the U.S. State Department removed the DFLP from its list of terrorist organizations, in part because of a rapprochement between Hawatmeh and Arafat.
On Saturday, the group said in a statement, "This heroic attack comes in response to the ugly war of aggression launched by the criminal Sharon government against our people and the assassinations and incursions."