Palestinian Gunmen Kill Rabbi In
'First Response' To Air Strike

By Megan Goldin

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Palestinians shot dead a rabbi from a Jewish settlement in the West Bank Thursday in what militants called the first response to an Israeli air strike that killed 15 Palestinians, including a top militant.
Two Palestinian militant groups claimed responsibility for killing Rabbi Elimelech Shapira, 43, and wounding another man in an ambush as they drove along a road near a Jewish settlement close to the West Bank city of Qalqilya.
"The operation is part of the armed struggle and in response to the assassination of our people in Gaza and (Hamas militant) Salah Shehada," the Popular Army Front-Return Battalions, a coalition of militant groups, said in a statement.
The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed group which is part of the coalition and has links to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, also took responsibility for the ambush, which heightened fears of a fierce new round of violence. The Islamic group Hamas has vowed to kill hundreds of Israelis to avenge Tuesday's attack by an F-16 warplane which fired a one-ton guided missile at the house of Shehada, commander of Hamas's military wing, killing him and 14 others.
Nine children were among the dead, most of them in buildings near Shehada's home, and 145 people were injured in an assault which was criticized in Israel and abroad.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Israelis and Palestinians alike must brace for more violence following the air strike, in which he said Israel had made mistakes.
"I know that this is a serious escalation and I am really afraid that innocent people on both sides will pay a high price," Peres told Israel's Army Radio.
Palestinian witnesses said troops arrested four Palestinians in Qalqilya after the West Bank ambush, including a militant leader, and that an army bulldozer demolished the house where he was found.
Hospital sources also said 10 Palestinians were hurt by an explosion between a minibus and a taxi in the West Bank city of Jenin. They said the blast may have been caused by a land mine planted by Palestinians as a defense against Israeli forces.
At least 1,467 Palestinians and 560 Israelis have been killed since Palestinians began an uprising for independence in September 2000 after peace talks stalled. Israel reoccupied West Bank cities last month in response to suicide bombings.
Israel has rarely been confronted with as much criticism in the 22 months of conflict as it has over Tuesday's air strike. It faced more during a late-night emergency debate in the United Nations Security Council.
Nation after nation said Tuesday's attack was unacceptable and unwarranted. But U.S. officials said Washington, Israel's closest ally, would oppose a draft resolution condemning the attack if it were put to a vote.
Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer defended the killing, saying Tuesday that intelligence had come in indicating Shehada was plotting a "mega-terror attack" soon with an explosives-filled truck that would have killed hundreds.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, speaking during a visit to Paris, said the Gaza attack was an attempt by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to sabotage recent efforts by Palestinian moderates to reduce violence.
Sharon has condemned the Palestinian Authority as a backer of terror -- which it denies -- and wants a new leadership and sweeping reforms as conditions for fresh peace talks.
U.N., European and dovish Israeli critics say the right-wing Sharon's priority is to avoid negotiations on a Palestinian state in territory Israel took in the 1967 Middle East war.
Sharon rules out Palestinian independence in the near future and backs Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In a gesture designed to help deflect criticism, Peres said Israel would release $43 million of frozen Palestinian Authority tax revenues and take other steps to ease hardships of 700,000 Palestinians living under Israeli curfew in the West Bank.
"We are making every effort to ease the escalation (since the Gaza strike)," Peres said.
The announcement drew swift praise as a "small but very welcome first step" from the European Union, among the main critics of the air strike.
Israel launched the attack on Gaza a day after Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin said it would consider halting suicide attacks if Israel withdrew from the seven West Bank cities that obtained self-rule under interim peace deals.
But Yassin said Wednesday there would be "100 new Salah Shehadas" and "new operations which will bring about the deaths of hundreds" of Israelis.
The U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv said it was taking the Hamas threats seriously and reiterated a warning to Americans to reduce their "exposure to risk" in the region.


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