Gunman kills two Israeli soldiers in attack on West Bank checkpoint

Two Israeli soldiers were killed in a Palestinian militant attack on a checkpoint in the West Bank yesterday, and nine Palestinians were injured, one of them critically, in an Israeli army incursion into Rafah in the Gaza Strip.

In Brussels, the European Union demanded that Israel stop building its "separation fence" in the West Bank. After meeting Silvan Shalom, Israel's Foreign Minister, EU foreign ministers issued a harshly worded statement condemning Israel's military tactics in the occupied territories.

The checkpoint incident was the first attack by Palestinian militants in almost a month. It came a day before talks to get them to agree to a ceasefire.

It was shocking in its effectiveness. A lone gunman, his assault rifle hidden inside a Muslim prayer rug, walked right up to the checkpoint and opened fire at close range. Soldiers who are supposed to offer protection to Israelis using the road were themselves victims.

The incident happened on the main road south from Jerusalem to Hebron and the Jewish settlement bloc of Gush Etzion. The road, known as the tunnel road because of two long tunnels, was built at huge expense to allow settlers to bypass the Palestinian city of Bethlehem on their way in and out of Jerusalem, to protect them from attack.

But the bypass itself has become a frequent target during the intifada. It is used almost exclusively by Jewish settlers.

The attack seems to confirm a recent trend towards more militant attacks on Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories, and fewer attacks on civilians inside Israel. Although the death toll was small, the ease with which the gunman could walk up, open fire and escape in a get-away car will shake Israelis. Military checkpoints in the West Bank have rarely been effectively hit.

Ahmad Qureia, the new Palestinian Prime Minister, and Egyptian mediators said they would go ahead with planned meetings with militant leaders in the Gaza Strip today, to persuade the militants to agree to a new truce. A unilateral ceasefire by the militants held for some six weeks during the summer, but this time Mr Qureia says he wants Israel to sign up as well - something it has said it is not ready to do.

In the south of the Gaza Strip, Israeli tanks went back into Rafah - the latest in a series of frequent incursions in which swathes of housing have been demolished. The army says the raids are to destroy tunnels used to smuggle arms under the Egyptian border.

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