'Drive-by' gun massacre raises fears of Israeli terror gang

Three Palestinians, including a baby, were shot dead near Hebron on Thursday night, adding weight to reports that a group of Jewish guerrillas has begun operating in the West Bank.

Israel Radio reported that a militant settler organisation called the "Road Safety Group" said it was responsible – a claim which, if true, makes this the worst attack by Israeli civilians on Arabs in 10 months of low-level sectarian war in the occupied territories.

Witnesses said that a settler fired on a Palestinian car from his vehicle – adopting drive-by tactics often used by Palestinian guerrillas. The shooting was at Idna, an Arab village close to Hebron, a highly volatile city.

Palestinian hospital officials said that two men, aged 23 and 22, and a boy, thought to be three months old, had been killed. A woman and a five-year-old were in critical conditions and two other children – aged 12 and 15 – were wounded.

Militant settlers in the West Bank have stoned and shot Palestinians in the past. They have also burnt crops and stores, vandalised vehicles and smashed windows. The Israeli armed forces often make little effort to intervene. Vigilante patrols of settlers – who have been demanding that their Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, unleash his army against Palestinians – have also been sighted.

But the prospect that a Jewish group is operating at the same time as Palestinian paramilitaries – who attack settlers and soldiers almost daily – marks a new low.

The authorities on both sides were preparing for a Palestinian retaliation to yesterday's killings. Earlier, Palestinian gunmen had fired into a Jewish enclave in the centre of Hebron, where about 450 Jews live in fortified pockets protected by thousands of soldiers.

Jewish parts of the city – where 40,000 Arabs have been under round-the-clock curfew – have festooned their walls with pictures of a 10-month-old baby, Shalhevet Pass, shot dead in Hebron in April by a Palestinian gunman. Sectarian strife is not new to the city; in 1994,Baruch Goldstein, a settler, opened fire in a mosque, killing 29 Palestinians.

Yesterday's attack came a day after an Israeli cabinet official revealed that Israeli security forces suspected a squad of Jewish militants was responsible for two shootings at Palestinians last month. Gideon Ezra, the deputy public security minister, said: "We know of one organised squad, no more, and that's already too many."

After the fatal shooting of a Palestinian in the West Bank on 13 June, Israel Radio received a message claiming responsibility from a group calling itself "Shalhevet Gilad". Police are also investigating the case of a local Israeli leader, a member of the extremist Kach group, who was found to have a supply of weapons in his car.

In Genoa yesterday, foreign ministers from the G8 called for international monitors to monitor a fractured Middle East ceasefire, delivering a setback to Israel, which opposes the move. But, significantly, the communiqué said the move would have to be acceptable to Israel and the Palestinians.