HEBRON, West Bank - Two off-duty Israeli soldiers hiking in the West Bank were killed yesterday by Palestinian gunmen, but before they died, they managed to fire back at their assailants and kill one of them, the military said.
A second Palestinian assailant was seriously wounded in the firefight, the army said.
A woman who was with the two Israelis but escaped unharmed told Israel Radio that they had been hiking in the hills outside the Palestinian city of Hebron, not far from the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, where all three lived. They were approached by a jeep carrying a group of Palestinian gunmen who fired at them, said the woman, who was not identified.
The army confirmed her account and said the two Israelis, both in their 20s, had returned fire with assault rifles. They killed one of their attackers and wounded another, the army said.
Palestinian security officials confirmed that one Palestinian had died in the clash.
The apparent ambush came hours after troops had killed a bodyguard for the Palestinians' chief negotiator in the West Bank town of Ramallah. There was no indication the two events were connected.
At a news conference in the Gaza Strip, an extremist group, the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, later claimed responsibility for the attack on the Israelis. The group described it as an act of revenge for the killing of Islamic extremists in Gaza by the Israeli military.
Witnesses who arrived at the site after the Hebron clash said they had seen a jeep riddled with bullet holes and spattered with blood being towed away for investigation. They said Israeli troops and Palestinian police were working together at the scene.
About 500 Jewish settlers live in heavily guarded enclaves among about 160,000 Palestinians in Hebron, and clashes between the two sides are frequent.
The shooting was the first fatal attack on Israelis since Israel and the Palestinians relaunched peace talks at a U.S.-hosted Mideast summit in November. It brought a call from settler leaders for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to shelve a proposal to ease criteria for releasing Palestinian prisoners.
A statement from the Yesha settlers' council attributed the attack to Olmert's recent initiative to seek cabinet approval for releasing Palestinians involved in failed attacks on Israelis - an effort to trade them for the release of an Israeli soldier captured by Gaza extremists in June 2006.
"The irresponsible policy of releasing terrorists causes terror to rear its head," the council said.
Also yesterday, an official in Olmert's office said the prime minister had issued a new directive to all government ministries requiring his approval for construction of housing for Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
Several lower-level bureaucratic decisions this month to move ahead with such construction caught Olmert off guard and angered the Palestinians and the United States just as Israel and the Palestinians were renewing peace talks.