Three Israeli soldiers were ambushed and shot dead Thursday night while patrolling a country road in the hills south of the embattled West Bank city of Hebron. Militants have now killed 22 Israelis in and around the biblical city in the last two months.
The soldiers were sent on foot to guard the road near the Israeli settlement of Beit Haggai, where passing traffic has periodically come under fire. It was a few hours after sunset when the gunmen crept out of hiding and shot all three at close range before fleeing, security sources said. By the time rescue workers reached the junction, the soldiers were dead.
"When we arrived, to our great regret there was nothing left for us to do," a medic identified only as Devora told Israeli radio. "They all three were dead, and the only thing left for us to do was to confirm their death."
As the night wore on, Israelis and Palestinians fired sporadically back and forth as troops combed the woods and hills in search of the killers. Israeli soldiers took over the nearby Palestinian village of Yatta, imposed a curfew and pulled people from their homes for questioning, the online news service Ynet reported. The gunmen were still at large early today.
Hours later, Israeli tanks and helicopters hit targets in Gaza City, wounding six people, hospital officials said.
About 450 Jews coexist edgily with 130,000 Palestinians in Hebron, a city shadowed by constant military guard and a history of mutual bloodshed that stretches back generations.
In the center of the city looms the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the burial ground of biblical Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives. Jews make weekly pilgrimages to the site for prayer under armed guard, and consider the suggestion of abandoning the tomb outside the borders of Israel a sacrilege.
For their part, many Palestinians regard the Israeli settlers and their attendant troops as unwelcome intruders.
The tensions flared again in mid-November, when militant gunmen opened fire on Jewish worshippers en route to the tomb. Eight Israeli soldiers and four private security guards were gunned down in the attack.
Israel retaliated by confining Palestinians in their homes for weeks -- except for quick respites, Hebron has lived under military curfew for two months. Hundreds of the city's Palestinians have been rounded up in searches for militants. This month, Israel declared Hebron University and the Palestine Polytechnic Institute havens for terrorists and shut them down.
Last Friday, Hamas gunmen shot radical Israeli settler Netanel Ozeri dead on the threshold of his home at the edge of the city. Ozeri was a well-known Jewish militant and a member of the outlawed Kach movement who had served prison time for participating in riots against Palestinians. Ozeri's death let loose a fresh wave of anger, and Jewish settlers once again rioted against their Arab neighbors.
Soon after Thursday's attack, the militant Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility. In a leaflet, Hamas said the shooting was retaliation for attacks by Israeli settlers and the military in Hebron.
From the Marxists to the Islamists, all factions of the multifarious Palestinian resistance were scheduled to gather in Cairo this week to discuss a possible cease-fire. But the talks have been complicated and delayed by infighting.
The latest deaths come as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon campaigns for reelection Tuesday on promises to keep answering Palestinian attacks with the intense military force that has characterized his government.
Israeli bloodshed tends to outrage the public and drive undecided voters to the right. Some Palestinian strategists urge militants to hold their fire in the weeks before elections.
Earlier this week, the wife of a well-known Palestinian prisoner was reportedly taken into Israeli custody as she tried to leave the West Bank. Ablah Saadat was detained on the bridge to Jordan as she set off for a political conference in Brazil to discuss her husband's arrest.
Her husband, Ahmed Saadat, was imprisoned in a Palestinian jail last spring under the guard of the United States and Britain. Saadat is the head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and his imprisonment was part of a deal that ended a 34-day Israeli siege of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Saadat was imprisoned in connection with the PFLP's 2001 assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi. Because Saadat was never charged, his confinement is controversial.