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Palestinians kill Israeli couple

Israeli forces reoccupy part of the Gaza Strip and kill three members of Islamic Jihad who fired on a convoy of settlers.

©Associated Press
March 8, 2003


JERUSALEM -- Two Palestinian gunmen dressed as Jewish seminary students barged into a Sabbath dinner Friday, killing a husband and wife before being shot dead themselves. The attack came hours after Israeli troops reoccupied a northern chunk of the Gaza Strip.

The soldiers in Gaza surrounded Palestinian houses, set up military posts in abandoned buildings and dug trenches in the most significant reoccupation in 29 months of fighting.

Also in Gaza on Friday, three Palestinians were killed after firing at a convoy of Jewish settlers, the army said. Soldiers escorting the convoy returned fire, killing the assailants, whom the militant Islamic Jihad group claimed as members.

"Palestinian terrorists continue to attack on the holiest day of the Jewish week," said David Baker, a spokesman for the Israeli government.

The militant Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility for the Sabbath attack in the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, near the West Bank town of Hebron, and for Wednesday's suicide bus bombing that killed 14 Israelis and one American, mostly teenagers. The group promised more attacks in retaliation for the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

The attackers, dressed in customary clothing worn by religious Jews, entered the gated settlement and walked into a home where a family was having Sabbath dinner. The gunmen killed the husband and wife and injured six other people.

It was unclear how the gunmen were killed but one of them had an explosives belt strapped to his body. The explosives did not detonate.

After the settlement attack, roaming soldiers flashed spotlights at houses and into alleys, searching for other suspects.

Later Friday, the army said it shot and killed two Palestinian gunmen trying to infiltrate the nearby settlement of Nahal Negohot. One gunman also had an explosives belt, which blew up, the army said. There were no Israeli casualties.

There is a strong military presence around the Kiryat Arba settlement, a hard-line settlement that often has been the target of Palestinian attacks.

The last attack near Hebron was Jan. 23, when gunmen killed three Israelis. On Jan. 17, two Palestinian gunmen infiltrated Kiryat Arba, killing an Israeli as he opened the door during the Sabbath dinner. The gunman also was shot and killed.

In November, gunmen ambushed worshipers on their way back from Sabbath prayers.

Palestinians view Jewish settlers as legitimate targets in their struggle for independence. The settlements are one of the greatest obstacles to an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

In the Gaza Strip, soldiers seized a densely populated 4-square-mile area in what the army called an open-ended operation. In the past, army raids into Gaza towns and neighborhoods would last hours, or a few days at most.

The Gaza operation -- aimed at preventing Palestinians from firing small, homemade Qassam rockets at Israeli border towns -- began before dawn Friday. About 100 tanks rumbled into the area ringed by the Palestinian towns of Beit Hanoun, Beit Lahiya and the Jabaliya refugee camp.

"They called to us over loudspeakers to get out and then they searched all the buildings, using dogs," said Mansour Abu Hamad, a 33-year-old lawyer living in Beit Lahiya.

Friday's reoccupation came as Mahmoud Abbas considered Yasser Arafat's offer to become the first Palestinian prime minister. The choice of Abbas, the deputy PLO chief, could signal that Arafat has given up on the idea of appointing a politically weak prime minister.

Earlier this week, Arafat still was considering Monib al-Masri, a Palestinian billionaire without political clout, for the job. International Mideast mediators have pressured Arafat to create the position to make him share power and reform the Palestinian government.

"I will be able to respond ... when it becomes clear what kind of authorities the prime minister will have," Abbas told the Associated Press on Friday.

Abbas has a strong political following and is known as a moderate. He publicly has called the violent Palestinian uprising a mistake and urges a return to peace negotiations with Israel.

The PLO's Central Council will meet this weekend to approve the idea of creating the position, and the Palestinian legislature will convene next week to define the new post's responsibilities.

In Washington, State Department press officer Brenda Greenberg said the United States looks forward to working with "an empowered and credible prime minister" who will lead the Palestinians toward the creation of a "viable and independent Palestine."

Israeli troops were digging deep trenches in the seized area and blocked roads. Warning shots were fired at some farmers whose land and orchards were bulldozed.

Troops said some of those farms were being used by Palestinians to fire rockets at towns.

Palestinian officials said about 6,000 Palestinians live in the seized area, particularly in Beit Lahiya, closest to the border fence with Israel.

About 40 tanks and military vehicles were parked Friday on a sandy hill overlooking Beit Lahiya and Jabaliya. Troops took over a former Palestinian police base and an elementary school, witnesses said.

On Thursday, several Qassam rockets were fired from Jabaliya toward the Israeli border town of Sderot, causing no damage or injuries. The rocket fire was a response to an Israeli sweep through Jabaliya earlier in the day that left 11 Palestinians dead and more than 140 wounded.

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