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Palestinian attack kills four Israeli soldiers, shatters calm
JERUSALEM -- Tossing grenades and firing rifles, two men in Palestinian police uniforms burst onto an Israeli army post near the Gaza Strip early Wednesday, killing four soldiers before being shot dead themselves.
It was the first deadly Palestinian assault on Israelis in nearly a month and threatened to subvert efforts for a formal Mideast truce.
The Bush administration decried the attack as "particularly disturbing because it came at a time when the situation on the ground had been relatively quiet," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
Israel said it held Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's government responsible for the assault, though the Islamic militant Hamas group claimed responsibility and declared it had abandoned a cease-fire.
The Palestinian Authority issued a statement condemning the attack and said the two gunmen were not members of its security forces.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon blamed Arafat for the attack, calling it "a result of the strategy of terror initiated by Yasser Arafat."
Israel responded by taking over three Palestinian naval police stations in the southern Gaza Strip, not far from the scene of the attack, according to Palestinian security sources. Palestinian police had abandoned the posts earlier, fearing Israeli action. The Israeli military spokesman's office said it was checking the reports.
Israeli army chief Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz said the attack proved "beyond any doubt the Palestinian Authority is not fighting the infrastructure of terrorism." Israel also says Arafat was behind the 50-ton arms shipment Israel seized in the Red Sea on a cargo ship last week and the two events have dealt a severe blow to U.S. truce efforts.
"They are inventing a new issue every time. The last was the ship," said Arafat, dismissing the Israeli charge.
Zinni had been hopeful
U.S. mediator Anthony Zinni left the region this week on a hopeful note, saying both sides were working toward a truce as the Mideast violence dipped to its lowest levels in more than 15 months in the wake of Arafat's call last month for an end to violence.
Israel's security Cabinet met for three hours Wednesday morning -- a regularly scheduled meeting -- and Sharon was quoted by Israeli TV as saying Israel would stick to the principle of retaliating for every attack.
Sharon has said his government was re-evaluating its already tense relations with Arafat's administration. Wednesday's shooting could jeopardize the few remaining links, such as periodic security talks.
The two attackers cut through the fence on the border of the Gaza Strip, entering southern Israel near the farming village of Kerem Shalom, not far from the Egyptian border. Six more Hamas militants attempted to get through the fence but failed, Israel's army said.
The two militants then stormed the muddy, rain-soaked army outpost, throwing grenades and firing assault rifles. One assailant fired at soldiers in a jeep, while the second charged an observation post, said Maj. Gen. Doron Almog, head of the army's Southern Command.
After the initial attack at 4 a.m., an army patrol rushed to the scene, but also drew fire. Altogether, a major, two sergeants and a fourth soldier were killed in the attack. Two soldiers were wounded, one seriously.
The four dead soldiers were members of the Desert Reconnaissance Battalion, made up almost entirely of Bedouin Arabs. The two assailants, both dressed in Palestinian police uniforms, were killed, the army said.
Hamas suggested in a statement that it would no longer abide by Arafat's cease-fire call, and said the attack was partly a response to Israel's seizure from "Arab waters" of the arms-laden ship. "The resistance is continuing," Khaled Mashal, a senior Hamas leader, said in Beirut, Lebanon.
Islamic Jihad, which like Hamas has carried out multiple suicide bombings, issued a statement stating it was abandoning any cease-fire. The statement denounced the Palestinian Authority, which it said "had, until that cease-fire charade, been a source of support in our holy war operations."
The Hamas assailants were identified as Mohammed Abu Jamous and Emad Rizzek, residents of the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza.
Clutching a photograph of her husband of only three months, Andalib Abu Jamous, 20, said her husband did not return home the night before the attack.
"He said he was going to spend the night praying at the mosque," she said, tears streaming down her face.
Both Abu Jamous and Rizzek were well-known Hamas supporters, according to camp residents. Abu Jamous also worked for the Palestinian naval police, according to his family. However, Palestinian security officials said he was not employed by the security services.
The most recent deadly Palestinian attack on Israelis was Dec. 12 when a Hamas member opened fire on an Israeli bus in the West Bank, killing 10 passengers and wounding 30. Four days later, acting under growing international pressure, Arafat declared a halt to all attacks.
Since then, there has been a sharp drop in Palestinian violence. Mortar fire stopped, and there were only sporadic shootings. The Palestinian security forces also rounded up dozens of members of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group.
But Israel says the Palestinians have not acted aggressively against the masterminds of terror attacks -- allegations fueled by Israel's interception of a weapons shipment last Thursday.
The captain of the ship has said the weapons were loaded in Iran and intended for the Palestinians. But the Palestinian Authority denies it was behind the smuggling attempt.