Israeli, Palestinian gunman killed in settlement attack

JERUSALEM -- Two Palestinian gunmen infiltrated the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba on Friday, killing an Israeli man as he opened the door of his home and wounding three other people. One gunman was shot and killed in the attack.

Army troops were searching the settlement and nearby town of Hebron for the other gunman, who escaped, the army said. The Islamic militant Hamas group claimed responsibility for the attack in a leaflet distributed in Hebron.

The attack began after dark when the gunmen knocked on the door of the home, shooting to death a man who answered and slightly wounding a 4-year-old girl and two young men inside, the army said.

Another person inside the house shot and killed one gunman, who was masked and armed with an M-16 rifle and a pistol, while the other attacker fled, the army said.

Hamas said the attack was in retaliation for Israeli military occupation of Palestinian towns. Israel says the troop deployments in seven of the eight major West Bank towns are necessary to prevent suicide bombings and attacks.

Tensions have been high since Nov. 16, when 12 Israeli security forces were killed in an ambush by Palestinian gunmen between Kiryat Arba and Hebron. But the region has been relatively calm recently.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat called last week on militant groups to abstain from attacks in order not to influence the Israel's Jan. 28 election. Israel has tried not to ignite the situation so as not to distract world attention from a possible U.S. offensive against Iraq.

Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinians marched Friday in support of Saddam Hussein in Gaza City, while Israelis waited in lines to receive gas masks in case of chemical or biological attack by Iraq.

Also Friday, the Islamic militant group Hamas claimed it was behind a foiled attack with a booby-trapped raft. An Israeli navy gunship fired on the dinghy, causing a large explosion off Gaza's northern coast. Hamas did not say what the target was, but several Jewish settlements are nearby.

About 3,500 Palestinians filled the narrow streets of Gaza City with fluttering Iraqi flags and pictures of Saddam. Some chanted, "Our beloved Saddam, strike Tel Aviv," reviving a slogan from the 1991 Gulf War.

Flanked by three guards with submachine guns, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas leader, told reporters the march was evidence of strong Palestinian support for Iraq.

"The Palestinian people and Iraqi people are in the same trench of resistance against the aggression and against injustice," he said.

Arafat, who backed Iraq in 1991, has withheld public support for Saddam. Still, members of his Fatah movement were among the demonstrators and Palestinian police officers did not try to break up the rally.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat was evasive when asked whether the Palestinian Authority was now backing Saddam. The demonstrators, he said, sought simply to express their opposition to war.

"Our region needs the breath of peace and not drums of war," Erekat said. "Our conflict must be solved peacefully and the Iraqi situation must also be solved peacefully."

In Jerusalem's largest shopping mall, meanwhile, dozens of Israelis lined up to get gas masks. Most of Israel's 6.6 million people have been issued gas masks over the years.

Israel's Defense Ministry is to award a contract in the next few weeks for production of an improved gas mask with a battery-operated air pump and a more comfortable fit, especially for people with beards, ministry spokeswoman Rachel Niedak-Ashkenazi said.

The first of the new masks, which Israel has been working for years to develop, will be ready by late spring, she said.

Last month, a Defense Ministry expert, Esther Krasner, told an Israeli newspaper only about one-third of the gas masks distributed in recent years are effective.

Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital, which is well-drilled in treating victims of Palestinian suicide bomb attacks, is preparing for several hundred potential victims of chemical and biological weapons attacks.

The hospital could treat Israelis as well as American soldiers wounded in Iraq if needed, spokeswoman Yael Bossem-Levy said.

Hundreds of American soldiers are in southern Israel for joint maneuvers to prepare anti-missile defenses in case Iraq strikes Israeli cities as it did in the 1991 Gulf War, when it fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel.

Preliminary exercises have begun and a live-fire drill is planned involving two anti-missile systems, the American-made Patriot and the Arrow, developed by Israel and the United States. U.S. soldiers have brought Patriot anti-missile batteries and are to remain in Israel until the end of any war on Iraq.