Three Israelis shot dead

Shortly afterwards, another Israeli was moderately to seriously injured in a second roadside shooting which took place near the West Bank town of Ramallah.

The shootings prompted an angry response from Israel, with Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz warning that unless the Palestinian Authority cracked down on militants, it would threaten the emerging dialogue between the two sides.

The first fatal Palestinian attack since last month’s Gaza Strip pullout was followed shortly afterwards by the killing by Israeli soldiers of a local militant leader in the northern West Bank.

Al-Aqsa claim

An anonymous caller from a cell of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a
Palestinian militant group which is meant to be observing a ceasefire, claimed responsibility for the shooting at the junction near Gush Etzion, which is frequently used by hitch-hikers.

Officials named the three victims as Oz Ben Meir, 15, Matat Adler, 21 and her cousin Kineret Mandel, 23.

All three were from settlements in the southern West Bank and will be buried on Monday before the start of the Jewish festival of Sukkot, which begins at sundown.

In a second violent incident further north, another 14-year-old settler was seriously injured when militants in a car opened fire as he was walking with his father along a road near the Eli settlement just north of Ramallah.

Israel retaliates

At a late-night meeting in Tel Aviv with the military’s top brass, Mr Mofaz decided on a series of measures to clamp down on future shooting attacks, one of which was to ban private Palestinian cars from intercity roads in the West Bank.

“We will change the policy of how they use the roads — we will demand that they use public transport rather than private cars,” a defence establishment source told AFP, saying the move would primarily affect the southern part of the West Bank.

The army would also step up its arrest activities, and encircle certain towns and villages in the southern West Bank, “largely around Bethlehem and Hebron” he said, without giving further details.

“The Palestinians are not doing anything serious — these measures will remain in force until they take real steps” against militant groups, he said.

Ahead of the meeting, Mr Mofaz accused militants of trying to sabotage emerging progress between the two sides, and said the Palestinian Authority was doing nothing to stop them.

“These terror organisations are continuing to sabotage … the process which everyone wants to happen: the process of dialogue with the Palestinians,” Mr Mofaz told Israel public television.

“We cannot continue this process if the Palestinian Authority doesn’t take practical and active steps against the terror organisations,” he said.

Abbas embarrassed

The claim of responsibility by Al-Aqsa, a group loosely linked to Mahmud Abbas’ governing Fatah faction, will embarrass the Palestinian leader who is under pressure to crackdown on militant groups.

Mr Abbas is to hold talks with US President George W Bush and French President Jacques Chirac this week, both of whom are hoping the Gaza pullout will revitalise the peace process.

The moderate Palestinian leader has been a frequent critic of the use of violence during the five-year uprising but he has refrained from a head-on clash with the armed factions for fear of sparking civil war.

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