Ten seconds that shook the Middle East

Gunman who thought he could keep city for Jews
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Palestinians dived to the ground in panic and shouted "massacre" when an Israeli soldier opened fire in all directions at the vegetable market in the heart of Hebron. The off-duty soldier, who lives in a Jewish settlement near Jerusalem, emptied the clip of his M-16 automatic rifle into the crowded open-air market before other soldiers overpowered him.

Noam Friedman, 19, fired for almost 10 seconds into the market on Martyrs Street, wounding men, women and a youth, witnesses and doctors said.

At first, panic and confusion gripped everyone - Arabs, soldiers and Jewish settlers. The Jews thought they were under attack and began firing around the market. Police and soldiers rushed to the scene from the nearby Jewish enclave of Avraham Avinu, and witnesses said at least one Palestinian was wounded by them.

However, as it dawned on the Israelis that they were not the target, soldiers crept towards the gunman. A few Palestinians also moved towards him in an attempt to bring him down.

Avi Buskila, an Israeli lieutenant, got there first. "When he entered the area of the square and began shooting, I stood at my post and heard the shots. Within 10 seconds I pinned him to the ground and took his gun," Lt Buskila said.

Even while on the ground the gunman tried to load a second magazine into his rifle. Soldiers then dragged him to a military jeep. "It happened right in front of me," said Walid Kafisheh, 46, a stallholder. "I tried to stop him but the soldiers got to him first. Then soldiers and police came from everywhere shooting."

Abdel Karim Atrash, 16, was selling aubergines when he was hit by gunfire. "I turned and saw a soldier in uniform. I tried to run but felt a pain in my leg." Friedman fired between 10 and 15 rounds, witnesses said.

The director of Hebron's Alia Hospital initially said 11 Palestinians were wounded, but hospital officials later said that five people were hit by bullets, and nine others were hurt in beatings by Israeli troops.

Friedman, who was off-duty at the time of the shooting, is from the Maaleh Adumim settlement near Jerusalem. He was drafted five months ago and served in a logistics unit in Israel. He was not assigned to duty in Hebron.

A senior Israeli army commander said Friedman did guard duty on Tuesday night at his base near Jerusalem, and got on a bus to Hebron yesterday morning. He wore a skullcap and a white fringed undershirt, both of which are symbols of a religious Jew.

Later, Friedman was defiant. He said he acted to sabotage the handover to the PLO of the town that he said was bought for the Jews 4,000 years ago by the biblical figure of Abraham. "Abraham bought the Cave of the Patriarchs for 400 shekels of silver. No one will return it," said Friedman, triumphantly waving his fist in the air.

The cave, which, is holy to Jews, is to remain under Israeli control along with all Jewish holy places, after Israel withdraws from 80 per cent of Hebron. However, the cave is also a holy site to Muslims, who call it the Haram al-Ibrahimi. In February 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a Jew from the nearby Kiryat Arba settlement, massacred 29 Palestinians kneeling in prayer at al-Ibrahimi mosque before survivors beat him to death.

Friedman's defiance brought to mind another right-wing religious Israeli, Yigal Amir, who murdered the former prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, 14 months ago in an attempt to halt a land-for-peace deal with Yasser Arafat. "Bibi [Netanyahu] remains alone, without Jews behind him," Friedman said in remarks that echoed Amir.

Yesterday, the army poured troops into Hebron and put armoured personnel carriers on surrounding hills to prevent reprisals. It also imposed a brief curfew. Youths burned tyres and clashed with soldiers briefly after the shooting but the streets quickly emptied.

Hebron's Palestinian political leaders issued a statement after the shooting saying there could be no peace while the 400 settlers remained among the 100,000 Palestinians. "The only solution for Hebron is to evacuate these fanatics." the statement said.