- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 31, 2010

JERUSALEM (AP) — A Palestinian gunman opened fire Tuesday on an Israeli vehicle in the West Bank and killed four passengers on the eve of a new round of Mideast peace talks in Washington. The Islamic militant Hamas praised the shooting.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility. But in the past, militant groups have staged attacks in an effort to sabotage peace efforts.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the gunman opened fire at a vehicle traveling near Hebron — a volatile city that has been a flash point of violence in the past. Some 500 ultranationalist Jewish settlers live in heavily fortified enclaves in the city amid more than 100,000 Palestinians.

Israel’s national rescue service said the victims were two men and two women. It gave no further details. Israeli media reported that one of the women was pregnant and that the dead ranged in age from mid-20s to mid-40s. The reports said everyone in the car was killed.

The attack occurred as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was en route to Washington for a White House summit launching peace talks on Wednesday. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was already in the U.S. capital meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

President Obama hopes to forge a peace agreement within one year.

Asked about the shooting, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. is aware “there are those who will do whatever they can to disrupt or derail the process.”

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak promised a tough response to an attack he said was aimed at sabotaging the talks.

Israel will not allow terrorists to raise their heads and will exact a price from the murderers and those who send them,” he said in a statement.

There is widespread opposition to the resumption of the peace talks among Palestinians. Hamas, which rules Gaza, opposes any contact with Israel and has harshly criticized Abbas for agreeing to resume the negotiations.

Hamas is considered a terrorist group by the U.S., Israel and European Union and is the main rival of Mr. Abbas and his Fatah movement. Hamas expelled Fatah forces from Gaza in its violent takeover in 2007.

In a statement, Gaza Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the group “praises the Hebron operation.” He did not claim responsibility or mention the peace talks.

Mr. Netanyahu, leader of a hard-line coalition of religious and nationalist parties, has said that protecting Israel’s security interests will be his top priority as he negotiates with the Palestinians.

Before leaving for Washington, Mr. Netanyahu told his Likud Party that he would seek “real arrangements on the ground” that ensure the security of Israelis.

“True peace is not a short break between wars, it’s not a short break between terror attacks. True peace is something that persists dozens of years, that stands well for generations,” he said.

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