TWO JEWISH settlers were shot dead by Palestinian gunmen near the West Bank town of Hebron yesterday, scuppering hopes that the first phase of Palestinian self- rule in Gaza and Jericho would be implemented peacefully.
Margolit Ruth Shochat, 46, and Rafael Yairi, 35, became the first Israelis to be killed by Arab gunmen since the Palestinian autonomy agreement was signed in Cairo two weeks ago. Their deaths came just hours before Israeli military commanders in the Gaza Strip formally transferred power to the new Palestinian authority. In a separate incident, in the West Bank city of Nablus, armed Israelis driving in a truck shot and killed a Palestinian man after Arabs stoned the vehicle.
In Jericho Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, congratulated Palestinians on the progress towards peace during a visit to the new self-rule enclave, but his words were marred by news of the killings.
The settlers killed yesterday were ambushed in their car on a road south of Hebron. The Izzedin al Qassem brigades, the armed wing of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, claimed responsibility for the deaths, saying the attack was further revenge for the Hebron mosque massacre.
The army said at least two gunmen fired several bursts from automatic weapons at the car. A burnt- out car believed to be that of the assailants was later found nearby.
Palestinian attacks against settlers had been widely expected after Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers opened fire on Palestinians in the streets of Hebron on Monday, leaving 19 Palestinians wounded, including an 11-year-old boy, Banen Zayed, who was last night critically ill in hospital.
The renewed violence in Hebron, where Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler, killed 29 Muslim worshippers in February, has once again put the Israeli government under pressure to remove extremist settlers from centres of Arab population where their presence exacerbates conflict.
However, Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minsiter, has so far refused to act against any Jewish settlers, insisting that the continued presence of about 120,000 of them in the occupied territories can only be discussed when the final status of the land is on the agenda in two years' time.
Since the Hebron massacre, the 400 Jewish settlers living in the heart of Arab Hebron and the 5,000 who live close by in Kiryat Arba have continued to move about the city with military protection.
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