Palestinians kill four Israelis in gun attacks

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The Independent Online

The Middle East conflict slid deeper toward prolonged guerrilla war yesterday after three Israelis, including two soldiers, were killed in a drive-by ambush on the West Bank and a fourth was shot dead in Gaza.

The Middle East conflict slid deeper toward prolonged guerrilla war yesterday after three Israelis, including two soldiers, were killed in a drive-by ambush on the West Bank and a fourth was shot dead in Gaza.

They amount to the bloodiest single attack committed by the Palestinians in the last seven weeks and seem certain to produce a fierce response from Israel's armed forces.

The first shooting happened just before dusk, as reports were coming in from the Gaza Strip that another two Palestinian teenagers had been shot dead by Israeli troops and a third died from early wounds - a typical daily death toll in the occupied territories at present.

The Israeli media said gunmen opened fire from a vehicle as they overtook a private car and then an Israeli miltary bus, riddling it with at least 50 bullets before speeding off. It happened on a section of road controlled by the Israeli military running north from Jerusalem to Nablus through the West Bank.

Two soldiers and a woman - a settler who was a passenger in the private car - were killed; seven people were injured. A few hours later an Israeli citizen was shot dead in a car in Gaza.

The killings provide further evidence that the intifada is being fought on two fronts: at the barricades in daylight by a dwindling number of Arab youths throwing rocks and molotov cocktails under fire from the Israeli army, and in the field by Tanzim gunmen using guerrilla tactics to attack Jewish settlements and army positions.

The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) were yesterday quick to emphasise that they view the latter as significant. The IDF's spokesman, Maj Yarden Vatikay, said: "This is turning into a guerrilla war against our army, and a terror war against our civilians. ... It is not a popular intifada."

Five days ago, in a shift of tactics, the Israeli armed forces killed a Palestinian guerilla leader, Hussein Abayat, by blowing up his car with a TOW rocket fired from an Apache helicopter in a suburb of Bethlehem. Two middle-aged women passers-by were also killed.Afterwards the Israeli army refused to apologise, saying it was Abayat's fault for operating in populated areas.

Palestinian Fatah leaders vowed vengeance, which quickly came: two Israeli soldiers were killed at the weekend, bringing the total of IDF fatalities to 12.

Yesterday's events may have been another episode in the same cycle of retaliation, but they are also part of a broader Palestinian strategy of targetting the Israeli army and the 200,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza in the hope of forcing them out. Twenty four Israelis have died in the conflict, of a total of around 215.

The killings yesterday will surely intensify the ongoing, low-level war on the West Bank between Palestinians and armed militant Jewish settlers.

Last night Israel's prime minister Ehud Barak interrupted a trip to the United States to consult with the IDF's chief-of-staff, Lt-Gen Shaul Mofaz, on how to respond. After previous attacks - such as the lynching of two of its soldiers - Israel has used tanks and helicopters to shell usually empty Fatah headquarters and Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank and Gaza.

The strategy assumes that Mr Arafat is orchestrating the violence, despite evidence that he is far from in full control.

News of the ambushes was yet another blow for the Israeli public. The last 48 hours alone has seen Mr Barak meet fruitlessly with Bill Clinton in the White House; the death of Yitzhak Rabin's widow, Leah - a controversial but admired figure - and an annoucement from Yasser Arafat that the intifada will continue.

To the annoyance of Israel, Mr Arafat was at the Organisation of the Islamic Conference summit in Qatar yesterday where he met with a senior official from Israel's staunchest enemies - the Islamic militant group Hamas.

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