|Ambush kills at least
12 in Hebron
Palestinian gunmen open fire on settlers, gun battle ensue
JERUSALEM, Nov. 15 — At least 12 Israeli settlers were killed in an ambush by Palestinian gunmen Friday night near Hebron on the West Bank, the Israeli military said. The shootings triggered a gun battle between Palestinians and Israeli military forces, making it difficult for emergency crews to reach the wounded, who reportedly numbered at least 15.
THE ISRAELI SETTLERS were walking along a winding road to worship at the Tomb of Abraham on Friday night, as they do every week on the eve of the Sabbath, when the shooting began.
NBC’s Martin Fletcher reported that the initial shooting drew Israeli forces, who may have been the target of a second ambush. Armored vehicles were sent to the area.
The militant Palestinian group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the shooting attack, Israeli TV reported.
An army official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the group had been caught in a well-planned ambush after the start of the Sabbath. Exchanges of fire were continuing in the area, he said.
Israeli media reported that soldiers attempting to assist civilians under fire were caught in an ambush that included sniper fire from the hilltop suburb of Abu Sneineh.
Most of Hebron is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, but the Israeli army patrols the center of the city, where about 450 Jewish settlers live in three enclaves, surrounded by 130,000 Palestinians. The 30,000 Palestinians living near the enclaves are also under Israeli control and are subjected to frequent curfews.
Hebron had been quiet in recent weeks, and Israeli troops withdrew from most of the Palestinian-controlled sector of the city.
BANQUET HALL RAID
Earlier Friday, Israeli troops burst into a banquet hall after a brief gun battle and arrested 17 activists from the militant Hamas group who were eating a meal to break a religious fast, the military said.
A dozen Israeli jeeps and armored vehicles surrounded the six-floor Badran banquet hall in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Thursday night as Palestinians gathered to break the daily fast of the Ramadan holy month.
Gunmen out on the street briefly traded fire with troops before Israeli forces entered the large building, which often hosts several wedding parties at once and was decked out with festive colored lights.
The latest violence came as Egypt and Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement pressed Hamas leaders to halt suicide attacks in Israel during Israel’s election campaign, citing concerns that more violence would push Israelis to choose a hard-line leader, a Palestinian official said Friday.
Three polls published Friday indicated Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would remain in office. According to the surveys, he is poised to win a Nov. 28 primary election, defeating his political rival, Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The surveys all gave Sharon at least 50 percent of the vote and a double-digit lead over Netanyahu.
A poll in the Maariv daily also indicated Sharon’s Likud party will nearly double its strength in Jan. 28 general elections, winning 35 seats in the 120-member parliament, while the more moderate Labor Party will lose three seats, dropping to 22. The leader of the party first able to form a stable coalition becomes prime minister.
Early elections, called when Labor left Sharon’s coalition government over a budget dispute last month, appear to have shelved the latest U.S.-backed peace plan.
PEACE ‘ON ICE’
Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Sharon, said negotiations around the so-called “road map” plan were on hold until after the vote. “It’s not in deep freeze but it’s on ice until after the Israeli elections,” Shoval told The Associated Press. “The moment there is an election period, such far-reaching decisions on the future of the country are always put on hold, always; it’s reality.”
The plan calls for Palestinian reforms, an Israeli troop pullback from Palestinian towns and the formation next year of a provisional Palestinian state that would gain full independence by 2005.
Israel’s elections were also on the agenda in talks between Fatah and Hamas. Egypt’s intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, held separate talks with Arafat and Sharon on Thursday to update them on the four days of talks in Cairo.
Fatah and the Egyptians, who mediated the talks, asked Hamas to halt suicide bombings for three months, until after Israel’s election, a Palestinian official said on condition of anonymity.
Hamas did not turn down the request, but demanded that Israel stop killing its leaders, the official said. Hamas officials said they would give a final answer in a few days after consulting with the group’s leaders, he added.
Suleiman reportedly asked Sharon to halt targeted killings during the three-month period, said the official. Sharon adviser Raanan Gissin said he did not know what Suleiman told the Israeli prime minister, but that Israel would not change its policy as long as attacks on Israelis continued.
“The question is not what was said in Cairo but what happens on the ground and so long as nothing happens on the ground we will continue to do whatever it takes,” Gissin said, referring to Israel’s policy of hunting down and killing militant leaders.
Hamas and other groups have sent legions of attackers that have killed hundreds of people in Israeli cities over two years of fighting.
Israeli forces this week swept into Nablus, the West Bank’s largest city, in response to such an attack - a gunman killed five Israelis, among them a mother and her two little boys, on Sunday at a communal farm near the West Bank.
An Israeli lieutenant colonel in Nablus told Army Radio Friday that Israeli forces there were digging in and had arrested 14 suspected militants. “We are at the beginning of the operation,” said the officer, who gave only one name, Yehuda. “The name of the game is patience, and determination.”
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