Enraged Jewish settlers mourning the death of an Israeli soldier went on a rampage through the West Bank city of Hebron on Sunday, leaving a Palestinian teenager dead, more than a dozen residents wounded, and shops and homes damaged, witnesses said.
The violence erupted during the funeral of Elazar Leibovitz, a young Israeli soldier slain in a roadside ambush by Palestinian militants near Hebron last week. Israeli police and witnesses reported that Palestinians threw rocks at the mourners, which triggered the riot by as many as 100 Jewish settlers in Hebron’s Old City.
Wielding guns and rocks, the settlers smashed car windows, set at least two Palestinian homes on fire, and beat up and shot at bystanders, residents said.
One of the bullets hit 14-year-old Nivin Moussa Jamjoum in the head while she was inside her home. She later died from the wound, hospital officials said.
At least 15 other Palestinians and 15 Israeli police officers were hurt during the riot, which lasted through the afternoon, authorities said. One of the injured was a 7-year-old Palestinian boy who was stabbed by an elderly Jewish settler, witnesses said.
The violence was a boiling-over of tension that had simmered since Friday, after four Israelis--Leibovitz, a Jewish couple and one of their 10 children--were gunned down in a surprise attack on a road south of Hebron.
A Palestinian militant group, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, claimed responsibility for the shooting. The group described it as retaliation for Tuesday’s Israeli airstrike on the Gaza Strip, which killed a Hamas military commander and 14 other Palestinians, most of them children.
In a bid to stem the spiral of violence, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Sunday that he would meet with senior officials of the Palestinian Authority next week--the highest-level meeting between the two sides since President Bush a month ago called for an overhaul of the Palestinian Authority.
The talks, which will focus on political and security reforms, are aimed at helping “the Palestinian community transform itself,” Powell told reporters in New Delhi.
The ambush that killed Leibovitz inflamed emotions in Hebron, a city already rife with hostility between its more than 100,000 Palestinians and the 400 or so Jewish settlers who have laid claim to land there, protected by Israeli soldiers and tanks.
Palestinian residents said reprisals for the ambush began late Saturday, when Jewish settlers smashed cars and damaged Palestinian homes.
Israeli police apparently anticipated a flare-up at Sunday’s funeral service and tried to clear the streets before it began. The army, which had lifted a curfew on residents just a few hours earlier, set off stun grenades to get Palestinians to return to their homes, witnesses said.
The funeral procession began around noon at a holy site revered by both Jews and Muslims as the burial place of Abraham and his sons. Television footage showed some of the thousands of Israeli mourners shouting at the crowd to avenge Leibovitz’s death.
Moshe ben Zimra, a spokesman for the Jewish settlers in Hebron, told Israeli radio that Palestinians started to throw rocks at the mourners as they were leaving the sacred site, which prompted the settlers to fire guns into the air in warning.
Dozens of mourners then peeled off from the main cortege and began attacking people and property in the Old City, a densely packed warren of Palestinian shops and homes, residents said.
Palestinian Mariam Natsche said she tried to shepherd her six children inside the house before the rioters advanced up her street. She was able to get five inside, but not 7-year-old Ahmed.
“They attacked us first by throwing stones. Then they grabbed my son and started kicking him,” said Natsche, 37.
Witnesses said they saw a Jewish settler in his 60s stab Ahmed in the back with a short-bladed knife.
“That’s when I started screaming to my neighbors for help,” Natsche said.
Neighbors on rooftops showered the boy’s assailants with stones until the attackers dispersed. An official at the hospital where Ahmed was taken said the boy lay in intensive care but was in stable condition and likely to recover.
Several residents accused the Israeli police and army of doing little to stop the mob of settlers. Police countered by pointing to the officers hurt while trying to keep the settlers back.
Four Israelis, including two minors, were detained for questioning in connection with the melee, the Haaretz newspaper reported. None of the four lives in Hebron.
Meanwhile, Israeli security forces announced Sunday that they had captured a leading Hamas militant, Hussein abu Kweik, and one of his deputies near the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Abu Kweik, long on Israel’s wanted list, is suspected of planning terrorist attacks. Israel had tried to capture him at least once before, in March, but succeeded only in killing his wife and three of their children by blowing up the truck they were traveling in.
Also near Ramallah, an 18-year-old Palestinian man was killed by Israeli soldiers as he watched an army incursion in a town east of the city, Israeli media reported.
Times staff writer Robin Wright in New Delhi contributed to this report.