Hebron shooting kills 12 Israelis

 A wounded soldier gets out of an ambulance at Hadassah hospital in Ein Karem, a suburb of Jerusalem.

 The militants opened fire from atop a hill in a Palestinian-controlled section of Hebron, the IDF said.
Friday, November 15, 2002  6:03 PM EST
HEBRON, West Bank (CNN) -- Palestinian militants opened fire on a group of Jewish settlers on their way home from prayer services Friday, killing at least 12 people, including the region's highest ranking military official, Israeli officials said. 

Another 16 people were wounded in the terror attack.  At least one was in critical condition and three were in serious condition, the Israeli government said.

Among the dead was the brigade commander for the Division of Judea, the highest ranking Israel Defense Forces official in the area, the Consulate General of Israel in New York said.

The Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack.  The group is listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.

The consulate said the attackers came from the Palestinian neighborhood of Abu Sneineh and used guns and grenades in the assault about 17 miles southwest Jerusalem.

The militants opened fire from atop a hill in a Palestinian-controlled section of Hebron, the IDF said.  The victims were in an Israeli-controlled section.  Hebron was divided under a 1997 agreement. 

The Israeli Jews were returning from a religious service to mark the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a site holy to both Jews and Muslims.

Evacuation of the victims was delayed as the militants kept shooting, aiming at rescue personnel and soldiers, who shot back.

The fatalities may include Israeli soldiers.

Abdallah Shalah, head of Islamic Jihad's operations in Syria, said the attack was revenge for Israel's killing of Iyad Sawalcha last week.

Sawalcha was believed responsible for orchestrating terror attacks against Israelis that left dozens of Israelis dead and many more injured. Israeli forces shot and killed him after he opened fire on them while they were attempting to arrest him.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a militant group dedicated to the creation of an Islamic Palestinian state and the destruction of Israel.  The group has carried out attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians.

In response to Friday's attack in Hebron, the IDF said it surrounded the house of a person authorities believe helped orchestrate the attack.

Palestinian officials inside Hebron said an Israeli tank has fired some shells in response to the shooting.  It was not clear whether there was any damage.

The Israeli Cabinet plans to meet Saturday evening to discuss the "Sabbath massacre." 

The attack came five days after a Palestinian gunman attacked a kibbutz in northern Israel, killing five people, including young children.

"What we see here is that there is no end to the Palestinian terror, there is no limit really to the barbarity of the Palestinian terror campaign," Israeli ambassador to the United States Danny Ayalon told CNN after Friday's attack.  He insisted that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Palestinian officials "do encourage it, they do finance it."

Arafat and some other Palestinian leaders have publicly condemned the killing of civilians.  There was no immediate comment from them after the Hebron attack.

Ayalon pointed out that Israeli forces had withdrawn from Hebron. "Whenever we leave an area the terror bounces back," he said.

The Hebron attack is "part and parcel of the wave of international terror -- whether in Bali or the U.S. or in Russia," Ayalon said.  As for whether there would be an extensive military response, Ayalon said, "democracies have the right to self-defense."

Approximately 450 Jewish settlers live in Hebron, surrounded by 130,000 Palestinians.  Approximately 30,000 Palestinians living near Jewish enclaves are in Israeli-controlled areas and are frequently subject to curfews. 

Shortly after the Kibbutz Metzer attack, two Israeli Apache helicopters fired on a target in central Gaza City.

The helicopters fired at least four missiles, apparently targeting a workshop near Palestine Square, in part of the old city, sources said.

Earlier Friday, in the West Bank city of Nablus, the Palestine Red Crescent Society said a 16-year-old Palestinian was shot and killed in a stone-throwing incident.  Two other teenagers were lightly wounded, the society said.

The IDF said it investigated and found that the Palestinian boy was throwing molotov cocktails at IDF troops.  They shot at him and wounded him, and he died after an Israeli ambulance took him to a hospital, the IDF said.