Hamas Launches Attack on Settlers Following Confrontation in Hebron

The Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement has claimed responsibility for an attack on Jewish settlers Tuesday that left two dead and a third seriously wounded.

The incident was the first terrorist attack on Israelis since Palestinian self-rule went into effect in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho.

And although it did not occur in either of those two areas, the attack threatened to upset the otherwise smooth transfer of authority that has taken place over the past week.

According to a spokesman for Hamas, which opposes the Israeli-Palestinian self-rule agreement, the attack was in retribution for the wounding of 19 Palestinians by Jewish settlers the day before in the West Bank town of Hebron. In that incident, Arab residents of Hebron clashed with a group of yeshiva students who had hiked there to mark the holiday of Shavuot.

Tuesday’s killings occurred when members of the Izz a-Din al-Kassam brigade, the armed wing of Hamas, opened fire from a speeding car on a family of Israelis in a passing car.

The attack took place Tuesday morning near the settlement of Beit Haggai, on the road linking Beersheba and Kiryat Arba, a Jewish settlement on the outskirts of Hebron.

The fatalities have been identified as Margalit Shohat, 46, of Ma’alch Levana, the driver of the car, and her son-in-law Yair Rafael, 35, of Kiryat Arba, who was sitting next to her.

Shohat’s daughter, Yael Na’ama, 21, who was sitting in the rear seat, was shot in the head and operated on at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.

NEW CURFEW IMPOSED ON HEBRON

The three had been holidaying in the Gush Katif area of the Gaza Strip over the Shavuot weekend.

Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, the Israel Defense Force chief of staff, rushed to the site of the attack and called on all who are licensed to carry weapons to do so and to help the army guard civilians in the territories.

The incident in Hebron occurred Monday, when a group of yeshiva students went to say prayers for the Shavuot holiday. Stones apparently were hurled at the yeshiva students as they reached the city’s central square. The students opened fire, following which larger and angrier crowds of Palestinians appeared.

When the army arrived, it sought to control the crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets. But the yeshiva students apparently continued firing. Two of them were subsequently arrested and held for questioning.

Four of the wounded Palestinians were said to be seriously injured. Many of the injured were children.

The army later imposed a curfew on Hebron, which has been the site of ongoing violence and tension following the Feb. 25 killing of at least 19 Palestinians by an Israeli settler.

During a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, Barak was criticized for permitting the yeshiva students to walk through the city. According to Israeli radio, several Cabinet ministers labeled the presence of the students there a “provocation.”

Leading the assault on Barak were Environment Minister Yossi Sarid and Immigrant Absorption Minister Yair Tsaban, both members of the left-wing Meretz bloc.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin condemned the yeshiva students’ hike and their firing at Palestinians in the ensuing clash as “quite unjustified.”

‘THE PRICE ISRAEL WILL PAY’

But for Israel’s opposition, the Hamas killing was but “the first installment of the price Israel will pay for giving up Jericho,” as Rafael Eitan, leader of the right-wing Tsomet party, put it.

Tsaban sharply criticized the students’ hike, whose goal was to visit the reputed graves of the biblical figures Ruth and Jesse, sites intimately associated with the Shavuot festival.

“If we carry on with this artificial worship of so-called ancient tombs, it’s fresh graves that we’re going to create here — and that’s got to be stopped,” he said.

Replying to the criticism, Barak said the IDF had acted according to the guidelines it had received from the government, which permit Kiryat Arba residents to enter Hebron armed.

Tuesday’s killings occurred the same day that the IDF officially handed over Gaza to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

In a brief ceremony in Gaza City, Zakaria al-Agha, a member of the Palestinian council that will govern Gaza, and IDF Maj. Gen. Dov Gazit signed a two-page document written in English that formally acknowledged the transfer.

The final IDF pullout from Gaza and the subsequent transfer of authority to the Palestinians was scheduled to take place Wednesday. Israel was initially prepared to complete its withdrawal Tuesday, but it apparently agreed to wait an extra day to give the Palestinians time to move their newly created police force into place.

(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent Hugh Or gel in Tel Aviv.)

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