The killing of three Palestinians and the wounding of four others by Israeli soldiers at a roadblock near Hebron Tuesday sparked the worst rioting in the West Bank in four months.
The violence came just one day after Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat warned of a possible new Arab uprising.
It was the third time since 1994 that the joyous Purim holiday had been marred by bloodshed in Israel.
In the West Bank unrest, Israeli troops opened fire with rubber bullets when Palestinians hurled rocks and firebombs at them near the towns of Hebron, Ramallah and Dura, the victims’ home village. At least 32 Palestinians were injured, including a 16-year-old who was struck in the head by a rubber bullet. Another Palestinian was wounded when a passing Israeli motorist opened fire with live rounds.
The violence occurred after the head of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal intelligence arm, warned of a new wave of terror attacks inside Israel. In remarks before the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Ami Ayalon said “all terrorist organizations, and especially Hamas, plan to carry out large-scale terrorist attacks unprecedented in their scope.”
In particular, he said Hamas was planning attacks in crowded areas using more explosive power than ever. Ayalon estimated that in the last year, 100 such attacks were thwarted by security forces. Attacks had been planned at the Jerusalem Mall, the Sultan’s Pool amphitheater in Jerusalem and the central bus station in Haifa, he said.
In addition, Ayalon said there had been plans to kidnap Israeli mayors, bomb railroad tracks and bus stops, and detonate car bombs at the Diamond Center in Ramat Gan and in the West Bank city of Ariel.
Hamas has become emboldened, Ayalon said, by the stalled peace process and the release of Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, and the head of its political wing, Mousa Abu Marzook. He said Israel’s prisons are a prime source of recruitment for the terrorist organization.
Ayalon is also reported to have said that security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority is now only “minimal.”
The roadblock shooting also occurred on the same day that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan to renew relations between the two countries following a botched Israeli assassination attempt against a Hamas leader last year in Amman.
After learning of the shooting, Netanyahu phoned Arafat to express his regrets. Palestinian cabinet secretary Ahmed Abdel Rahman called the incident a “new Israeli massacre.”
The shooting occurred on a road between Hebron and Beit Guvrin. Authorities said a white van with Israeli license plates and filled with Palestinians returning from their jobs in Israel tried to run the roadblock by passing a line of cars, slightly injuring an Israeli soldier.
Two Israeli paratroopers manning the roadblock then riddled the van with bullets. Military medics treated the wounded at the scene; they were taken to Jerusalem’s Hadassah-University Hospital in Ein Kerem.
At the scene, two bodies were seen to be laying in pools of blood beside the van, whose windows had been blown out by bullets. On the floor of the van were blood-soaked bananas, pita bread and tomatoes, the apparent remnants of the workers’ lunches.
Brig. Gen. Yitzchak Eitan said the soldiers opened fire after seeing the van try to run down the soldier, and kept shooting until the vehicle stopped. Eitan directed the immediate arrest of the two soldiers and ordered an investigation. He later said that an “initial inquiry found that there was an attempt to run down the soldier and the soldiers acted according to army regulations.”
But Palestinian witnesses disputed that account, saying the van apparently had veered off the road. A Palestinian in the van said the shooting began after the driver accelerated to prevent another car from cutting in line at the roadblock.
A Palestinian eyewitness said the van entered the checkpoint as usual and did not stop because it was not ordered to. Then the shooting started, he said.
Israeli troops had been on a heightened state of alert because of the approaching Purim holiday. It was during Purim four years ago that settler Baruch Goldstein, a former Brooklyn physician, opened fire on Arab worshipers in a Hebron mosque, killing 29. Two years ago, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew up a bus in Tel Aviv during Purim, killing 14.
With reporting by wire services.