Palestinian Gunmen Kill Six Israelis
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BEIT SHEAN, Israel (AP) _ Two Palestinians opened fire Thursday outside a Likud Party office crowded with Israelis casting ballots in a party primary, killing six people and wounding dozens more. The gunmen also fired shots at a nearby open-air bus station before being shot dead.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon charged that the attack was part of a Palestinian campaign to interfere with Israel’s election process, and he appealed to party members to vote in the primary elections that will decide his political future.
The Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, a militia linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, claimed responsibility, saying the attack was revenge for the killing of two militants earlier this week in the West Bank town of Jenin, 12 miles from Beit Shean.
The gunmen struck at 3:20 p.m. local time, when the Likud office in the northern Israeli town of Beit Shean was crowded with members casting ballots in the leadership race between Sharon and Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The vote was not called off, and hours before the polls were to close, Sharon urged Likud members to continue going to balloting stations. ``It doesn’t matter who you support, don’t let the terror scare you,″ Sharon told an evening news conference. ``Go to vote. Go to vote.″
He said the attack was a campaign by Palestinian militants, the Palestinian Authority and Arab countries to influence the election, but did not explain what he meant.
The Palestinian Authority issued a statement condemning the shooting and said such attacks inside Israel ``have caused severe and negative damage to our national interests.″ It denied any link to the gunmen.
National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice phoned Sharon’s top aide, Dov Weisglass, to offer President Bush’s ``deep sorrow″ about the attack and to express hope ``that the terror will not hurt or disturb the democratic procedures in Israel,″ Sharon’s office said.
Witnesses said the gunmen jumped out of a car in front of the stone building housing the Likud offices, threw into the crowd a grenade that didn’t explode and began firing in all directions as they tried to enter the building.
``They (the attackers) fired hundreds of bullets,″ Beit Shean Mayor Pini Caballo told Israel Radio. Israeli media said six people were killed and another 45 injured.
Three empty ammunition clips were found at the scene, Army Radio said. A full clip usually holds about 30 bullets.
Among the injured were three sons of David Levy, a former Israeli foreign minister. One of the sons, Jackie Levy, told Army Radio from the hospital that he saw the gunmen throw at least two grenades toward the crowd.
Another witness, Galit Cohen, who lives near the Likud office, said she saw one of the attackers. ``I opened the window and I simply saw the terrorist standing, smiling, laughing and shooting in all directions,″ Cohen told Army Radio. ``He simply shot and shot and shot and he didn’t stop. People were fleeing and falling.″
Col. Danny Koffler, who is in charge of community policing in the area, said the gunmen parked their car _ a stolen white Mazda _ right in front of the Likud office and began firing at the crowd, throwing a hand grenade that didn’t explode.
A border patrol officer credited with killing both gunmen, Eran David, 28, said he heard the shooting from his home near the Likud office, grabbed his rifle and ran to the scene.
He said one of the gunmen had his back to the stone office building and was firing out in all directions while the other one was trying to get into the building, but was pushed back by the crowd.
He said he fired on both gunmen, killing them. When asked how he felt, David said only: ``I don’t feel anything. I just did what I had to do.″
One of the dead gunman wore a vest that security officials initially believed was an explosives belt. No explosives were found on him, although a grenade was found in the car used by the attackers, Koffler said.
Police searching the car tore off the rear bumper and broke into the trunk, but inside a small white pine tree air freshener remained untouched, dangling from the front windshield.
Television footage of the scene showed four bodies, covered by blankets, lined up on the sidewalk. On fences surrounding the Likud office, election posters read: ``The nation wants Sharon,″ while other posters with Sharon’s picture fluttered in the debris, which included two pairs of shoes.
Inside the office, the yellow Netanyahu ballots and blue Sharon ballots voters are supposed to put in envelops to cast their choice littered the floor, which was stained with blood in one corner.
Hours after the attack, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz visited the scene and a crowd of Israelis gathered outside, shouting ``No Arabs, no terror attacks!″
In a phone call to The Associated Press, the Al Aqsa militia said two attackers opened fire to avenge the deaths of two militia leaders in an explosion in the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin earlier in the week. The militia has blamed Israel for the deaths, though Israel denied involvement.
The militia identified the attackers as Omar Abu al-Rob, 19, a university student, and Yusef Abu al-Rob, 22, a policemen. Both were from Jenin.
Thursday evening, about 300 people marched through the Jenin refugee camp, chanting ``Revenge, Revenge!″ as gunmen fired shots into the air. Among the marchers was the mother of Ala Sabbagh, one of the slain militants, and she danced and sang with the crowd.
Officials from the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad praised the attack as legitimate in fighting Israel’s occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. ``The occupiers must understand that martyrdom operations and armed resistance will not stop until we reach our goals,″ said Abdullah Shami, an Islamic Jihad spokesman.