Israeli leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the upcoming Palestinian elections despite the killing this week of two Israeli soldiers near the West Bank town of Hebron.
No group claimed responsibility for Tuesday night’s attack, but the army reportedly said the drive-by shooting of an Israeli army doctor and medic was carried out by Palestinian gunmen.
The two Israelis killed in the ambush north of Hebron were identified as Maj. Oz Tibon, 29, and Sgt. Yaniv Shimel, 20.
They were buried Wednesday at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem.
The ambush came in the wake of calls from the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement to avenge the Jan. 5 slaying of Yehiya Ayash, a Hamas activist who topped Israel’s most-wanted list for masterminding a series of suicide bombings that killed scores of Israelis.
Israeli officials have neither confirmed nor denied their involvement in the killing of Ayash, who died in an explosion at a Gaza Strip hideout after he spoke into a booby-trapped cellular phone.
The ambush near Hebron also took place amid warnings from Israeli and Palestinian officials that Islamic militants might try to sabotage the Palestinian elections, scheduled for Saturday.
The attack came only days before the balloting, when Palestinians will for the first time elect an 88-member council that will run Palestinian affairs in the autonomous areas of the West Back and Gaza Strip.
Although no group claimed responsibility for the attack, Prime Minister Shimon Peres put the blame on Islamic militants, saying that “gangs” of Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists were targeting Israelis.
He added that they could not be allowed to sabotage the peace process or the upcoming elections.
“We’ll not let groups like these determine whether or not there will be elections,” Peres told reporters Wednesday.
The Israeli coordinator of activities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip said the ambush was timed to disrupt the Palestinian voting.
“The timing is no coincidence,” said Maj. Gen. Oren Shahor. “It was meant to disturb the elections process.”
In the attack, gunmen opened fire from a passing vehicle on the car in which the two Israelis were traveling on the Jerusalem-Hebron road.
The army closed off Hebron after the attack and launched a search for those responsible.
Hebron, with some 400 Jewish settlers living among about 100,000 Palestinians, has long been a flashpoint for violence.
It is the only West Bank town slated for redeployment that has not yet been handed over to Palestinian self-rule.
The Israeli army is to withdraw from major parts of the city in March, leaving a presence primarily in the enclave where the settlers live.
The attack took place in a location, which, under the terms of the most recent Israeli-Palestinian accord, remains under full Israeli control.
That accord, signed Sept. 28 in Washington, was approved by the Knesset on Tuesday in a vote of 48-44.
Settler leaders condemned Tuesday’s shooting, which came a day after an Israeli was moderately wounded in a separate shooting attack on the outskirts of the West Bank town of Bethlehem.
In that incident, a religious Jew was shot and wounded in a ceramics shop near Rachel’s Tomb in an area patrolled by Palestinian police.
He was taken to a hospital in Jerusalem, where he underwent surgery.
The Israeli army declared Bethlehem, which was handed over to the Palestinians on Dec. 21, a closed military zone and barred Israelis from traveling through it.
connection with the attack near Bethlehem. The three suspects, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which opposes the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, were arrested near the dehaishe refugee camp in Bethlehem.
The shooting in Hebron prompted calls on the government from settler activists to slow down the continued implementation of the accord for extending West Bank autonomy.
“Instead of heading towards peace, we see the disintegration of the protection of the citizens of Israel,” said Yehudit Tayar of the Yesha Council, which represents Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza.
Right-wing activists have planned a number of protest activities timed to coincide with the Palestinian elections, including a demonstration Saturday night in Jerusalem.
But settler activists denied claims by Israeli police officials that they would attempt to disrupt the voting in eastern Jerusalem, which they oppose on the grounds that any balloting there will compromise Israel’s sovereignty over the entire city.