Two Border Policemen were wounded yesterday in a shooting attack in Hebron, close to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. One of the men was moderately hurt, while the second sustained light wounds. The shooter fled the scene.

Tension in the area of the Tomb of the Patriarchs has soared in recent weeks, against the backdrop of claims by Islamic sources that the Israel Defense Forces is interfering with Muslim prayer sessions at the site.

Yesterday's attack came shortly before 9 A.M., when shots were fired at a Border Police position just outside Hebron's Casbah. The Border Police position serves to monitor the passage of Palestinians from the area of the Casbah toward the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

An initial probe into the incident indicates that a Palestinian, armed with a 9mm pistol, approached the Border Police position and fired 12 rounds at the forces stationed there, wounding two of the policemen. A third border policeman and a member of the Israel Police returned fire, but failed to hit the shooter, who fled.

The two wounded men were taken for treatment at Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem. At the same time, the IDF imposed a curfew on the area of the Casbah and mounted searches for the attacker. Some 50 Palestinians were taken in for questioning, and most were released shortly thereafter.

No Palestinian organization has claimed responsibility for the attack, with Shin Bet security service sources speaking of a phenomenon of "popular attacks" in the Hebron area - attacks carried out on settlers and security forces by individuals who are not linked to any particular organization. In most instances, the Shin Bet sources say, the attacks are acts of revenge for harm done to family members or abuse from Israelis.

Around 10 such attacks have taken place in Hebron since last August.

At a meeting of the Likud faction following the incident, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the attack would not keep Jews from praying at the holy site.

"The attack this morning at the Tomb of the Patriarchs is an attempt to harm the Jews' freedom of religion at one of the holiest sites for the Jewish people," he said. "Jews will continue to pray at the Tomb of the Patriarchs and to live there."

Sharon also said the attack underscored Israel's position that Palestinians must wage war on terror organizations and those who aid and finance them.

Hebron settlers and right-wing lawmakers harshly criticized the government in the wake of the attack, saying that the policy of restrained military action following the Sharm el-Sheikh summit had led to the policemen being wounded.

Hebron settler leaders have sent a letter of protest to Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon, in light of the decision to withdraw IDF forces from the city in the framework of the gestures to the new Palestinian government.

Elsewhere, an IDF patrol operating in Kfar Tal, west of Nablus, uncovered a 15-kilogram explosive device, while soldiers in Ramallah arrested a wanted Hamas man.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz will meet at the Erez crossing this evening with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, in an attempt to break the deadlock in the security talks between the sides.

One of the main issues on tonight's agenda will be the handing over of security responsibility for the West Bank cities to the Palestinians. Military sources have denied reports in the Palestinian press that the PA would assume responsibility for Tul Karm today. Arrangements for the handover had yet to be completed, and the matter would be discussed between Mofaz and Abbas this evening, the sources said.