settlement near the volatile West Bank city of Hebron on late Thursday, January 23, Israeli military officials and reporters said.
About 450 Israeli settlers live in three enclaves in the middle of Hebron with about 150,000 Palestinian residents, making it often a flashpoint for violence.
Tensions increased since November. 16, when 12 Israeli security forces were killed in a night ambush prompting the Israeli army to take over the Palestinian-controlled section of the troubled city.
Despite these tensions Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Israel cannot give up the nearby hotly disputed holy site the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where the biblical figures Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are believed to have been buried.
Analysts suggested Thursday’s attack near the Beit Hagai settlement in the Hebron hills, was likely to further boost support for Sharon and his perceived hardline policies, just 5 days before Israel’s general elections.
The militant group Hamas and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades linked to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction, claimed the ambush the Reuters news agency said.
Zvi Katsover, mayor of the nearby Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba, told Israel TV that soldiers had been firing flares in the air earlier to find armed Palestinians. "This was apparently the unit that was chasing the terrorists, and engaged them, and the results are known."
The Magen David Adom medical rescue service told Israel Radio that the victims "were apparently shot from close range," although they were not immediately identified. Palestinians also reportedly also shot and killed an Israeli settler in a house just outside Hebron.
Last week two Islamic militants also shot dead a member of the banned anti-Arab group Kach as he was eating Sabbath dinner with his family in a Jewish settler outpost near Hebron.
Islamic militants and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades have vowed no respite to attacks despite talks between leaders of 12 Palestinian factions including Fatah on a unilateral cease-fire in the uprising due to begin in Cairo on Friday, January 24, Reuters said.
Palestinians backed by militants resumed the Intifada, or uprising, in 2000, after talks broke down on Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza Strip which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
Israeli officials are concerned that these attacks include further suicide bombings, several reports have suggested.
The International Christian Embassy Jerusalen (ICEJ) said Israeli soldiers narrowly avoided a possible massacre earlier this week when they spotted a car loaded with half a ton of explosives and gas canisters connected to a detonator.
ICEJ News Service said he discovery was made at a northern checkpoint near Hadera Tuesday, January 21, and that the four men inside the car managed to escape as soldiers approached them.
Palestinian Christians have urged churches to pray for the volatile region, BosNewsLife learned.