Chaos and bloodshed returned anew to Jerusalem yesterday when a Palestinian gunman with an assault rifle opened fire on a bus stop in one of the city's busiest streets, killing two people.
The attack came hours after Israeli forces burst into an apartment in the West Bank town of Nablus and killed four men from the military wing of the Islamic-nationalist Hamas movement, which has launched many suicide bombings in Israel over the past year.
Israeli shoppers in Jaffa Street, west Jerusalem, dived for cover when the gunman began his rampage, only a few yards from a pizzeria where a suicide bomber killed 15 Israelis in August.
Witnesses described how the young man, who they said had blond streaks in his black hair, perhaps to avoid being identified as an Arab, ran up the street, firing wildly.
Passers-by hid in shop doorways and behind rubbish bins, drawing their handguns, which are issued to settlers and soldiers by the Israeli military.
"I saw hate in his eyes – calm, but full of hate," said Hanan Ben-Naim, one of the policemen who killed the attacker, whose blood, like those of the people he shot, formed gory pools on the rainswept streets.
Israeli policemen eventually shot the guerrilla dead in a car park, but only after he had seriously injured 16 people, two women later died of their injuries. As he was being pinned down, sporadic gunfire went on for 10 minutes, while police and ambulances rushed to the scene.
The gunman was later identified as Said Ramadan, a member of the al-Aqsa Brigades, a militia loosely affiliated to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement. The group abruptly stepped up its attacks on Israel last week when Israeli forces assassinated Raed al-Karmi, one of its leaders in the West Bank.
A guerrilla from the same group was responsible for killing six people in an attack on a 12-year-old girl's bat mitzvah party in Hadera, northern Israel, last Thursday – an attack that Israel then used to justify its latest military raids.
Yesterday's shooting immediately dominated the headlines in Israel, although the security forces had been predicting further attacks. Shortly before the bloodshed, Hamas had removed any lingering doubt over whether it was still supporting Mr Arafat's 16 December ceasefire orders by declaring in a leaflet that it would now prosecute an "all-out war" against Israeli settlers and soldiers. But a Hamas statement suggested that the scope would be still wider: "This massacre [in Nablus] will open the door widely for a fierce war that will reach Zionist gangs everywhere, using all methods."
The new surge in violence, the first big attack in Jerusalem since a double suicide bombing on 1 December, came after the intifada's biggest raid by Israel into land handed to the Palestinians under the Oslo accords, when Israeli troops took control of Tulkarm on Monday.
Although they pulled back yesterday morning, Israeli armed forces followed up with an early-morning raid in Nablus, killing the four Hamas operatives.
Israeli army spokesmen said the Hamas guerrillas were killed in their explosives laboratory during a pre-dawn gun battle. But the head of Palestinian intelligence in Nablus, Talak Dweikat, said that they appeared to have been attacked while sleeping. Palestinian medics found three bodies lying on the floor, which was covered with mattresses, and the fourth in a shower, in a sitting position. Photographs of the scene showed that the man in the shower was stripped to his underwear – evidence, which if true, suggested that the Israeli army, which has assassinated scores of people in the past year, had again ignored international law.
Tayseer Omran, a spokesman for Hamas, which has become steadily more popular among Palestinians during the intifada, described the killings as a "massacre in cold blood" – remarks that are unlikely to impress Israelis, who say the same about Hamas suicide bombers.
Mahmoud Alul, the governor of Nablus, described their deaths as "an execution. They were killed while they were in the apartment. There was no resistance. There were no signs that the apartment was a base for Hamas, as Israel claims. They were sleeping in the apartment,'' he said.
The killings came amid further signs of internal divisions among the Palestinians. As news of the Hamas deaths spread, a crowd of its supporters gathered outside the Palestinian police headquarters in Nablus, hurling stones and demanding the release of Islamic activists jailed by the Palestinian Authority.
Palestinian police fired tear gas when protesters broke through the gate of a Nablus prison holding Palestinian militants.Reuse content