2 Israeli Policemen Killed in West Bank

By Howard Schneider and Samuel Sockol
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 16, 2009

JERUSALEM, March 15 -- Two Israeli policemen were shot and killed in the West Bank on Sunday night, officials said, the first Israeli deaths in that area in nearly a year.

Israeli police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said the shooting was being treated as a "nationalistic" attack, the phrase Israeli police occasionally use for political violence carried out by Palestinians. He said that the two officers were shot "at close range" while on patrol near the Israeli settlement of Massua. The small Jewish enclave is in an agricultural area of the Jordan Valley, north of the city of Jericho and near the Jordanian border.

A hunt for the killers was underway Sunday night. Rosenfeld said basic details of the case are still under investigation.

Witnesses at the scene said the police vehicle was found upside down on the road. Rosenfeld said it may have flipped after the driver was struck by gunfire.

The overwhelmingly Palestinian West Bank has been occupied by the Israeli military since 1967. Parts of the territory are administered by the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority, and under a series of international agreements, the West Bank is supposed to form one part of a future Palestinian state. But Israeli settlements remain scattered across the area, and travel by Palestinians throughout the West Bank is regulated by hundreds of Israeli checkpoints and other barriers.

Both the settlements and the checkpoints remain a source of controversy and frustration between Palestinians and Israelis, and the tension between the two sides often turns violent. Last week, a Palestinian youth was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers after throwing a firebomb at their vehicle, while in January, a resident of the Kochav Hashahar settlement was injured by gunfire while driving.

But compared to the Gaza Strip, where Hamas holds sway and fought a war with Israel this year, the West Bank has been relatively calm. The divided government of the Palestinians has been a key stumbling point in the effort to resume peace talks with Israel. Fatah, which leads the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas reportedly took a step toward resolving the impasse Sunday. Wire services reported from Cairo that the rival factions had agreed to hold presidential and legislative elections on Jan. 25 of next year.

The last Israeli deaths in the West Bank occurred on April 25 of last year, when two security guards at an industrial park near the city of Tulkarm were shot dead.

The Palestinian Authority has urged Israel to dismantle more West Bank checkpoints to give Palestinians greater freedom of movement, but settler organizations say that security in the area remains too tenuous to ease restrictions.

Rosenfeld said that patrols in the area would be stepped up in response to the attack, and that Israeli border police and military units had joined the search for the killers.

With a new Israeli government preparing to take office perhaps this week, outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was involved in last-minute negotiations Sunday over the possible release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held for nearly three years since being captured by insurgents near the Gaza Strip. Egyptian-mediated talks between Israel and Hamas are underway in Cairo, and the Israeli cabinet would have to approve any deal.

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