Palestinian gunmen burst into the kitchen and dining hall of a small Jewish settlement in the southern West Bank tonight and sprayed the areas with bullets, killing four Israelis and wounding nine, according to the Israeli military and news reports.
One of the assailants was shot and killed during a 20-minute gunfight with Israeli soldiers who rushed to the scene, an Israeli military spokeswoman said. A second gunman led soldiers on a 90-minute chase through the countryside before he was shot and killed about a mile southwest of the settlement, an Israeli military official said.
He said the second gunman was wearing an Israeli army uniform and carrying an M-16 automatic rifle. Two Israeli soldiers were injured during the fight at the settlement, and three more were lightly injured while pursuing the second gunman, military and hospital officials said.
The attack occurred about 7:45 p.m. at the opening of the Jewish Sabbath in the settlement of Otniel, a religious community of about 500 people about six miles southwest of the Palestinian city of Hebron and 25 miles south of Jerusalem. Unlike many settlements, Otniel is not surrounded by a fence, but the perimeter is patrolled by the Israeli army. Most of the victims were religious students from the settlement's yeshiva who had gathered in the dining hall for a traditional Friday evening meal.
The shooting broke a month-long lull in major Palestinian attacks on Israelis. The last such assault occurred Nov. 28, when Palestinian militants killed six people in an Election Day attack on a polling station in the Jordan Valley town of Beit Shean, about six miles north of the West Bank.
The attack followed the killings of at least nine Palestinians by Israeli soldiers on Thursday. Palestinian commentators claimed those killings were a calculated bid by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to inflame Palestinian passions and sabotage talks between militant groups in Cairo aimed at lowering the level of violence against Israelis -- an assertion denied by Israeli military and government officials.
Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, which is participating in the Cairo talks, vowed that his organization would continue attacking Israelis. "The march of martyrs will move forward," Yassin told a rally of about 30,000 people in a Gaza City soccer stadium to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Hamas's founding. The festivities included simulated kidnappings and executions of Israeli settlers, according to a filmed report tonight on Israeli television.
"Resistance will move forward," Yassin told the crowd. "Jihad will move forward, and martyrdom operations [suicide attacks] will continue until the full liberation of Palestine."
As word of tonight's killings spread, a mob of people from Kiryat Arba, a large Jewish settlement on the edge of Hebron, went into one of the city's neighborhoods and attacked cars and houses, according to a report on al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite television network. An Israeli military spokesman said he knew of no violence tonight in Hebron.
Hebron is one of the West Bank's most volatile cities, with Jewish settlers living in its center, and passions there have been particularly high since Palestinian gunmen killed 12 Israeli soldiers and security officers in an ambush Nov. 16. Two more soldiers were killed in Hebron two weeks ago.
Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian group that has asserted responsibility for dozens of attacks on Jewish settlers and other Israeli civilians and soldiers in the past two years, claimed responsibility for tonight's raid on Otniel. Ramadan Shalah, the group's general secretary, said in a telephone interview with al-Jazeera from Damascus that the attack was in retaliation for Israel's killing Thursday of the group's leaders, Hamsa Abu Roub.
Abu Roub, 35, was killed in the town of Qabatiya, about 40 miles north of Jerusalem, in a shootout with soldiers who had gone to his house to arrest him.
Avi Pazner, an Israeli government spokesman, disputed the explanation that the attack on Otniel was in retaliation for Israel's actions. "Every time we manage to arrest or eliminate a terrorist, there will always be another terrorist afterward who claims to retaliate in vengeance, but that's absurd because we know we are engaged on an hourly basis with people who are trying to get to us," he said.
Pazner said the attack on Otniel "was a direct result of the incitements. In spite of the talks that are going on in Cairo, there is a constant effort to carry out the maximum number of attacks against us, and unfortunately, today it succeeded."
Israeli military officials also challenged that there had been a lull in Palestinian operations against Israelis that ended because of the army's killing of nine Palestinians on Thursday. A military spokesman said, "In the past month, there were 21 attempts to infiltrate Jewish communities in the West Bank, and this demonstrates that it's going on all the time."
Correspondent Molly Moore contributed to this report.