Militants kill top colonel in Hebron ambush

Israeli armoured vehicles poured into Hebron last night, as it emerged that nine of the 12 Israelis killed in an ambush here on Friday were soldiers or members of the paramilitary border police.

Israeli armoured vehicles poured into Hebron last night, as it emerged that nine of the 12 Israelis killed in an ambush here on Friday were soldiers or members of the paramilitary border police.

Palestinian residents of Hebron awoke to a strict curfew today, with Israeli tanks patrolling most streets in both the Israeli and Palestinian sides of the city.

Among those killed in the ambush was the Israeli army commander in Hebron, Colonel Dror Weinberg – the most senior officer to die in the two-year intifada. The other three dead were armed Jewish settlers who had rushed to the help of the soldiers.

The killings, the work of Palestinian militants most Israelis thought were all but beaten by sheer military force, are a body blow to the Israeli army. It appears it may have been the work of only three gunmen, who were all killed in the fighting. The hardline militant group Islamic Jihad took responsibility.

In Hebron yesterday it was clear that the ambush was meticulously planned. Palestinian gunmen first attacked a border police jeep patrolling the area, the Israeli army said. Then, when soldiers ran after the gunmen, they fell back into the narrow lanes, leading the army into a trap. The fighting went on for more than an hour and a half.

Blood was still smeared across the road in Wadi Nasara, the Valley of the Christians, where the ambush took place. Surgical gloves lay on the streets where ambulance crews had tried to save the wounded.

The road here is popularly known as "Worshippers' Lane" among Jews, because it is used by Jewish settlers to walk through Palestinian districts of Hebron to pray at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, one of the holiest sites in the West Bank, sacred to both Jews and Muslims.

The road runs through a narrow valley. Up the steep slope on one side lies Hebron's Old City and the Tomb. On the other are the modern blocks and security fence of the Jewish settlement of Qiryat Arba, with Palestinian houses close by. It is a prime spot for an ambush.

Palestinians in Hebron seethe with resentment. They are often forced to remain under curfew in their houses, so that settlers can walk safely through the streets. About 450 settlers have moved into the Old City, and are slowly taking over more and more of it as Palestinians are forced out.

To protect the settlers, there was a routine. On Friday nights, when they went to pray at the Tomb, security forces were stationed in Wadi Nasara to protect the settlers, while border police vehicles patrolled the streets of Palestinian houses to the side.

It was a routine that had taken place many times before, and the gunmen must have known it well. At 7.30pm, the border police jeep was attacked by two men. Hamoud Jabr, a local Palestinian, said he heard the gunmen throw a grenade at the jeep. The blast broke through its armour plating, killing the four border police inside.

Meanwhile, the army said, a third gunman started firing on "Worshippers' Lane". Colonel Noam Tibon, who took over from the dead Col Weinberg, recounted yesterday how soldiers ran after the gunmen into a carefully laid trap.

This was not a "Sabbath Massacre" of civilians, as the Israeli Foreign Ministry claimed on Friday. None of the dead were worshippers. Most would have returned to Qiryat Arba before the attack took place, which would explain why only soldiers and those helping them were killed.

Islamic Jihad have often targeted, and mercilessly killed, Israeli civilians, but the deaths of so many uniformed men will be much more of a shock to ordinary Israelis than an massacre of unarmed settlers. Many Israelis resent the extremist behaviour of settlers in Hebron, which they believe is damaging chances of peace, and many soldiers resent being forced to guard them.

"The Palestinians definitely have reason to worry about the response of the settlers," said Jonathan Stern, a resident of Qiryat Arba. There were murmurings that the settlers were planning their own revenge; it would not be the first time settlers have attacked Palestinian civilians in Hebron. "This is a huge problem. We will do whatever we can to bring law and order," Colonel Tibon said yesterday.

But the first Israeli retribution was already visible. As the colonel spoke, a Palestinian woman shouted angrily from the rubble of her house nearby. The Israeli army demolished it, he said, because the gunmen had fired from its windows. When asked whether the family who lived in the house had anything to do with the attack, his answer was revealing. "Yes and no," he said. "This war is an ugly war. Sometimes both sides take steps" – he hesitated – "which are really tough".

There was no immediate reaction from the Israeli government last night because of the Jewish Sabbath, but Ariel Sharon's government will come under pressure to retaliate harshly.

There are already renewed calls for Yasser Arafat to be expelled – something the United States has made clear it does not want at the moment. But with the army already in most West Bank cities, the Israelis are running out of options.

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