- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2002

JERUSALEM Israel struck a Palestinian government complex in the West Bank with missiles twice yesterday in retaliation for an Islamic militant's assault on a Jewish settlement that killed three Israelis.

The militant's attack marked the first time in 16 months of fighting that Israeli civilians were killed in their home, further raising the level of the nation's anxiety.

Palestinian militiamen have said they will increasingly target settlements.

The Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for Wednesday's attack on Hamra, an isolated Jewish settlement of 40 families in the West Bank's Jordan Valley.

Hamas gunman Mohammed Ziad Khalili, 26, from Nablus, cut through the settlement fence, killed an Israeli soldier, then entered a house and took Miri Ohana, 50, and her 11-year-old daughter hostage. The gunman killed the girl and wounded Mrs. Ohana before soldiers killed him with several shots to the head, said an army commander in the area, Brig. Gen. Udi Shani. Mrs. Ohana died on the way to a hospital.

In response, Israel launched two air strikes against the main government and prison complex in Nablus. Early yesterday, F-16 warplanes struck the site, injuring 11 Palestinians; 20 hours later, helicopters fired two more missiles. Neither strike caused major damage.

After the first air strike, Palestinian wardens released 25 Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners to get them out of harm's way, while 103 suspected informers for Israel remained in custody.

In Jenin, dozens of gunmen stormed a makeshift prison in an apartment building and freed seven detainees, meeting no resistance from police.

Among those freed in Nablus were Mahmoud Tawalbeh and Ali Safouri, two Islamic Jihad leaders appearing on a list of 33 top militants the United States wanted to see behind bars. Mr. Tawalbeh is suspected of having sent more than a dozen assailants into Israel in recent months.

A leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, said yesterday that the group was escalating its attacks.

"We started with shooting attacks, then roadside bombs and now we are sending attackers into Israel and the settlements," said the militiaman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Palestinian militants have carried out several attacks on settlements in recent months, but only two resulted in Israeli deaths an incursion in October into the Elei Sinai settlement in Gaza and Wednesday's assault on Hamra.

Fatah leaders said they oppose attacks on Israeli civilians and continue to support Mr. Arafat's Dec. 16 cease-fire declaration but that it was increasingly difficult to control the gunmen.

"If the Israeli aggression against our people continues, the Fatah military wing might take extreme steps such as attacking civilians and settlers, attacking any Israeli target they can reach," said Yousef Harb, a Fatah leader in Nablus.


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