Six soldiers die as Palestinians target checkpoint

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The Independent Online

Six Israelis were shot dead last night in the West Bank, burying all Western diplomatic efforts to restore calm.

They were killed when Palestinian gunmen burst into a building at an Israeli military checkpoint and opened fire. The six dead were all believed to be soldiers.

The Arabic al-Jazeera television station said the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militia linked to the mainstream Fatah movement, had claimed resp-onsibility. Shortly afterwards Hamasfollowed suit.

The Israeli cabinet will meet today to discuss the next step in a crisis that has claimed more than 20 lives in just over 24 hours.

It is the third severe blow for the Israeli armed forces in a week when Palestinians succeeded for the first time in blowing up a Merkava tank, killing three crewmen, and the commander of an undercover unit died when a wall collapsed during a raid.

The loss of six soldiers at once will intensify the controversy within Israel about the army's presence in the West Bank, highlighted by the refusal of more than 200 army reservists to serve in the occuped territories.

Amid the avalanche of attacks and reprisals, a vague pattern is visible. The Palestinian militias have stepped up the number of assaults, unleashing waves of suicide bombers. They seem to be focusing their attention on soldiers and settlers in the occupied territories. This may be because they are aware that, for the first time, Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, is facing significant domestic unease about his tactics.

Mr Sharon and his generals are intensifying military measures in the hope their policy towards the occupied territories will eventually work, but assassinations, a military blockade, house demolitions, raids by F-16 jets and helicopter strikes have not stopped the Palestinian violence.

Before last night's attack, Mr Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said Israel would keep Yasser Arafat confined to his West Bank headquarters, but had no intention of toppling the Palestinian Authority, or of reoccupying Palestinian cities. It was not clear whether the death of six more Israelis ­ bringing Israel's death toll to 17 in less than a week ­ will affect this. Last night's shooting happened near Ein Arik, a Palestinian village.

Mr Sharon's spokesman said before last night's attacks that Israel would be adopting "a wider use of military measures". He was responding to a day that began with three Palestinians being killed before dawn. According to Palestinian sources, Israeli tank shells hit homes in Rafah, southern Gaza. Then, at 11.30am, an Israeli helicopter fired a missile into an office of the militant Hamas group in Jabaliya, a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. The missile killed two people, Iyad Abu Safiyeh, 23, and Mohammed Hamdan, 25.

Meanwhile, Israeli army bulldozers arrived to demolish 18 Arab homes in Gaza, close to the scene of an attack by a gunman which killed three Israelis on Monday. Four homes were knocked down before Palestinian human right activists acquired a temporary halt from Israel's High Court.