Gunmen ambushed an Israeli bus in the West Bank city of Hebron Sunday night, killing two Jewish settlers and wounding at least five in the first fatal terror attack in more than a month.
Witnesses who reached the scene shortly afterward said in telephone interviews that the bus was struck by dozens of bullets as it neared a turnoff to the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, escorted by Israeli soldiers. Angry settlers blocked roads and shouted anti-Arab and anti-government slogans, and Hebron’s mayor said they were destroying Palestinian cars and shops.
Sunday night’s attack renews the pressure on peace negotiations that had just begun to ease. Israel slammed the brakes on the self-rule talks after suicide bombings killed 21 Israelis, 20 of them soldiers, at the Beit Lid Junction on Jan. 22.
Only last week did Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signal his willingness to talk seriously again about permitting Palestinian elections and withdrawing his army from some occupied Arab towns. Hours before the attack, he granted 3,150 new work permits enabling Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza to cross legally into Israel, bringing the total to about 25,000. If he follows precedent, he will reverse that move today.
Both Rabin and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, are battered by critics of the talks. On Friday, Arafat barely fought off a vote by the executive committee of his Fatah faction in Tunis to walk out of negotiations. To avert that defeat he promised to appoint hard-liner Mahmoud Abbas as chief negotiator with Israel.
Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, helped hammer out the PLO’s first accord with Israel but accused Arafat of giving too much away in subsequent agreements.
Hebron Mayor Mustafa Natshe, a supporter of Arafat, speculated in an interview Sunday night that the bus attack was “a reply to the first anniversary of the massacre” in the Tomb of the Patriarchs. But nothing, he said, “justifies such a violent act against innocent civilians.”
The Tomb of the Patriarchs, among the few sites sacred to Jews and Muslims alike, has made Hebron a flash point of conflict since long before the Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule, which began in 1987. The adjacent community of Kiryat Arba was home to Baruch Goldstein, the American-born physician who gunned down 29 Muslims at prayer at the site in February 1994.
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