Bethlehem Under Blockade as Israel Hunts for Gunman

Times Staff Writer

Israeli troops blockaded the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem on Tuesday after a Palestinian gunman carrying an assault rifle that was wrapped in a prayer rug cut down two Israeli soldiers manning a checkpoint on its outskirts.

The shooting, on the edge of the Palestinian village of El Khader, rekindled debate in Israeli military circles about the dangers faced by Israeli troops who patrol remote West Bank villages or stand guard at ambush-prone roadblocks.

Israeli authorities said the slain soldiers were a 23-year-old sergeant major and a 20-year-old staff sergeant. The sergeant major was talking on his cellphone with his mother when the assailant approached. She heard the fatal gunshots before the phone went dead, military officials said.

Late Tuesday, the Arabic-language satellite TV channel Al Jazeera reported that the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant group with links to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah group, had claimed responsibility for the attack.

The Israeli army said it was investigating why only one of the seven soldiers staffing the roadblock had opened fire on the gunman and why the surviving troops did not immediately give chase.

Although the attack drew angry criticism from Israeli officials over what they described as a failure on the part of Palestinian authorities to contain militant groups, the two sides appeared to be on track for talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Korei.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said after a meeting in Brussels with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that he expected that Sharon and Korei would meet next week. It would be their first face-to-face talk since Korei took office in early October.

Tuesday's attack was the first time in nearly a month that Palestinian militants had launched an assault on an Israeli military position. On Oct. 24, gunmen killed three Israeli soldiers who were guarding the Gaza Strip settlement of Netzarim.

Within an hour of the 6 a.m. shooting at El Khader, Israeli troops flooded into the village, searching house to house for the gunman, who had fled the shooting scene in a car. He was not found.

Villagers complained that the tight curfew left them unable to get to work or school.

"I was unable to get to my college, and so was my sister. She had to sneak through fields to get to Bethlehem," said Hassan Ayish, 18. "It seemed like the searches were random, and people had to stand for hours at checkpoints, in the hot sun."

The Bethlehem area, including El Khader, has been under Palestinian security control for more than four months, and the Israeli military said Palestinian officials bore responsibility for the attack.

The army acknowledged that Palestinian civilians would bear the brunt of new restrictions on movement.

"Before, we allowed traffic inside the city and outside it, we allowed merchants to leave the city and tourists to enter it, we allowed civilians to leave," said Col. Gadi Eisenkot, the army's West Bank commander.

"But in view of this incident ... the life of the residents will become harder than it was before this morning," he said.

The attack came as Egyptian mediators and Korei were launching a bid to win a cease-fire pledge from Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

A unilateral truce declared by the groups over the summer collapsed as the two sides pounded away at each other, with Israel trying to assassinate the Hamas leadership and Hamas staging suicide attacks that killed and maimed scores of Israelis.

Korei was to travel to the Gaza Strip today for talks with the militant leaders.

Israel remains skeptical about the prospects for a cease-fire, but there was broad agreement across the Israeli political spectrum that the Palestinian Authority prime minister, widely known as Abu Alaa, needed to be able to show his people some Israeli concessions or his government would collapse like that of his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas.

"We want to give Abu Alaa credit if he is serious about stopping attacks," Israeli Justice Minister Tommy Lapid told Army Radio.

In Gaza, meanwhile, Israel pressed ahead with what the army calls a concerted campaign to destroy tunnels under the Egyptian border used to smuggle arms.

Palestinians said nine people were injured when armored vehicles pushed into the Rafah refugee camp before dawn Tuesday, exchanging fire with Palestinian gunmen.

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