Four Shot to Death in Gaza Strip As Unrest in Territories Escalates

A month and a half after the government sealed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip to stem terrorist attacks against Jews in Israel proper, Palestinian gunmen have stepped up assaults within the territories.

The latest attack took place Sunday, when Palestinian gunmen in the Gaza Strip shot to death four people: two Israeli vegetable merchants and two Arab vendors.

In an unusual development, the gunmen left leaflets at the scene saying the attack was a joint act by the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas group and an armed cell affiliated with the secular Palestine Liberation Organization.

The incident would mark the first time the two rival organizations have claimed joint responsibility for a killing and may signal a new turn for terrorist operations in the territories.

The attack took place near the settlement of Moshav Gadid in Gush Katif, a bloc of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. The four victims were standing outdoors, apparently discussing a business deal.

Arab witnesses said they saw a white Peugeot car approach the men. The gunmen got out of the car, spraying bullets from automatic weapons at all four victims. Before driving off, they walked over and shot each man in the head to make sure they were dead.

The two murdered Israelis were identified as Nissim Balas, 33, of Dimona and Avshalom Halfon, 21, of Ofakim. The two Palestinians killed were Ziad Abu-Jurab of Hebron and Tawfik Jurab, 19, of Khan Yunis.

Reacting to the slaying, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin warned Israelis who are not residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to avoid the territories and not to trust Palestinians "even if their intentions are good," since they are unable to protect Israelis from terrorists.

Although Rabin noted that Israelis are not forbidden to enter the territories, he advised: "Don’t risk a man’s life because of a profit of a few hundred shekels."

PEOPLE THINK ‘NOTHING WILL HAPPEN’

Israeli vegetable merchants continue to come to Gaza to buy produce at cheap prices, despite repeated warnings by the army and increased tension there since the territories were closed.

"Everyone believes that nothing will happen to him," said Nitzan Hadari, an Israeli security officer at the nearby Ganei Tal settlement, "and then it happens."

Another vegetable merchant, Yehezkel Avraham, was murdered at the same place two months ago.

Balas, one of the vegetable dealers murdered in the attack, had been warned several times not to enter the area.

He reportedly was involved in illegally smuggling agricultural produce from the Gaza Strip into Israel proper and was detained several times for his activities. Balas was released from his latest detention last Friday.

Sunday’s shooting, the bloodiest attack since the territories were sealed off at the end of March, came on the heels of several other bold and successful attacks in recent days.

Last week, militants stabbed two soldiers inside a building serving as an observation post in downtown Nablus in the West Bank.

Two soldiers were wounded in that attack, one of them suffering serious wounds. The stabbings were followed by a series of daring attacks against army targets in the Gaza Strip.

5 SOLDIERS WOUNDED BY GRENADE

On Saturday, a hand grenade was thrown at an army observation post inside the Shati refugee camp near Gaza, wounding five soldiers, some of them suffering serious wounds.

As in the Nablus attack, the Hamas movement claimed responsibility, saying it was in retaliation for the killing of six wanted Hamas militants who were shot by soldiers last week trying to flee Gaza and cross into Egypt.

There also were violent clashes over the weekend between soldiers and stone-throwing youths. Palestinian sources said a baby and an 11-year-old boy were killed during separate clashes Sunday at two Gaza refugee camps.

The increasing violence within the Gaza Strip and West Bank had been predicted by military and political analysts as an inevitable result of the decision to seal off the territories.

Security experts said the move would create growing political frustration and economic distress, since jobs were lost in Israel proper.

However, they have been surprised that the level of violence did not rise much sooner after the closure was imposed, but only now seems to be materializing.

And they have been heartened by the fact that not one fatal terrorist attack has occurred inside Israel proper since the territories were sealed off.

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