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Three Israelis killed in dawn shooting at Jewish settlement

9 June 2002

A pregnant woman and her husband were killed early yesterday by gunmen who infiltrated a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, as Palestinian militants continue to mount attacks despite daily raids by the Israeli armed forces into their towns.

Israeli officials said that the couple were shot in their beds when two gunmen blasted a cluster of mobile homes from close range at Karmei Tsur, north of Hebron. A second man, a soldier, was wounded in the dawn attack and died later in hospital.

Security guards and soldiers shot dead one of the attackers. According to the Israeli army, an M-16 rifle, an axe, a knife and grenades were found beside his body. The Israeli military launched searches for the second gunman in two nearby Arab towns, using helicopters, armoured personnel carriers and spotlights.

The attack put yet another spoke in the wheel of diplomacy, complicating the latest US-led efforts to calm down the conflict. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak met George Bush yesterday at Camp David; tomorrow it is the turn of Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who is due in Washington for his sixth meeting with the US president since taking office.

The shooting came only three days after a Palestinian suicide bomber in a moving car blew up a bus as it was entering lower Galilee in Israel, killing 17 people, of whom 13 were young soldiers. In the early hours of the following day, Israel retaliated by destroying the West Bank headquarters of Yasser Arafat whom it blames for failing to end Palestinian attacks. Israeli forces blew up buildings and fired tank shells, including one which damaged the Palestinian leader's bedroom.

Attacks on the residents of settlements built by Israel in the occupied territories in defiance of the international community, have long been a central part of the strategy of militant Palestinian nationalist groups.

Yesterday's attack appears to have been one of two raids on settlements planned by Palestinians for the weekend. Late on Friday, a Palestinian was shot dead by Israeli forces in a naval gunboat, while he was in the Mediterranean sea off Gaza. The Israeli army said he was one of two men trying to infiltrate Dugit, in the north of Gaza, by swimming to a nearby beach. The fate of the second man was unclear.

At least two other Palestinians died in an explosion beside the electro-sensitive fence that separates the 1.2 million Arabs of Gaza from Israel, in what appears to have been an attempt to blow up the fence. Reports from Gaza said that loudspeaker announcements were made in Rafah, southern Gaza, declaring that three "martyrs" from the Izz al-Din brigades, the armed wing of the Islamic-nationalist Hamas movement, had died in exchanges with the Israeli army after planting an explosive device.

US officials concede that they have no new solutions to the violence. The Americans appear to have resorted to conflict management, using a form of "gun and olive branch" diplomacy. The "gun" is used to pressure the Palestinian leadership, and comprises the threat that Israel may get rid of Yasser Arafat if attacks continue.

The "olive branch" is the Saudi Arabian peace plan, which calls for Israel's total withdrawal from the occupied territories in return for normalised relations with the entire Arab world. By expressing support for the plan, the US is seeking to pressure Mr Sharon, who has made it clear that he will not withdraw to 1967 lines. Mr Mubarak, keen for Egypt to elbow its way back into the Middle East centre stage, arrived in the US with a variation on the theme a plan by which a Palestinian state would be declared across all the occupied territories, before the core issues such as the division of Jerusalem, refugees, final borders and settlements are negotiated.

In the meantime, the pattern of Palestinian attacks and Israeli military raids seems doomed to continue. While Palestinian public opinion is divided over the use of suicide bombers inside Israel, attacks on the 380,000 or so Israeli settlers living in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza are widely seen by Palestinians as legitimate.

Palestinian officials cite Israel's rampant settlement building on Arab land as one of the reasons for the collapse of the Oslo peace negotiations. Israel's Peace Now pressure group says that under Mr Sharon, a life-long champion of the settlers, 34 new outposts have been established. New mobile homes were set up outside Karmei Tsur the scene of yesterday's bloodshed on the day of Mr Sharon's election in February last year.

Phil Reeves, Jerusalem
Published in the Independent © 2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

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