Israel Sustains Worst Death Toll Since Violence Began in Territories

Israel has sustained its heaviest daily toll of casualties since the violence began in the West Bank and Gaza Strip more than six weeks ago.

Palestinian gunmen killed four Israelis — including two soldiers and a woman – - during three separate ambushes Monday. Eight other people were wounded in the attacks.

Israel responded with a decision to seal off all Palestinian towns in the West Bank, an Israeli general, Yitzhak Eitan, announced at a news conference hours later.

The attacks came after a Washington meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Clinton failed to produce a breakthrough in efforts to end the cycle of violence and renew negotiations with the Palestinians.

News of the attacks reached Barak in Chicago, where he was taking part in the annual General Assembly of U.S. Jewish federations.

Barak adviser Gilad Sher said the prime minister was in contact with senior military officials to discuss the steps Israel would now take.

In Chicago, Barak spokesman Nachman Shai said the similarity of Monday’s ambushes indicates that they had been centrally planned.

He also charged that Arafat had abandoned the peace process and was planning to create a Palestinian state with “blood and fire.”

Shai said Barak had warned Clinton during their meeting Sunday night that Arafat is “destabilizing the entire region.”

In the wake of Monday’s shootings, Jewish settler leaders called on Barak to give the Israel Defense Force a free hand in responding to the Palestinians.

Israel Television quoted sources in Barak’s entourage in Chicago as saying that Israel is not planning to abandon its policy of restraint. One source was quoted as saying that it would be easy to respond “emotionally” to the ambushes, but it took far greater effort to respond in ways that would ultimately achieve Israel’s overall goals.

The two soldiers were killed when Palestinian gunmen opened fire from a passing car on a bus transporting Israeli soldiers. The woman was traveling in a civilian car when she was fired upon and killed.

The two closely timed attacks occurred near Ramallah. The perpetrators were believed to have fled to the Palestinian self-rule areas.

Hours later, an Israeli driving a truck died of his wounds after he was fired on near the Kissufim Crossing in Gaza. Emergency rescue crews that arrived at the site were unable to save him.

The two soldiers were identified as Cpl. Elad Wallerstein, 18, of Ashkelon, and Cpl. Amit Zana, 18, of Netanya.

Also Monday, Palestinian gunmen fired on the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo for a second straight day. There were no reports of injuries.

During a meeting Monday, senior IDF commanders concluded that the Palestinians have moved away from staging mass demonstrations and are now engaged in concerted efforts to inflict Israeli civilian and military casualties in the territories.

Monday’s attacks prompted an Israeli government spokesman to say that the Palestinians are no longer engaged in a civil uprising, but in “warfare and terrorism.”

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