Meeting last night in the wake of one of the worst 24 hours of the 17-month-old conflict with the Palestinians, Israel's security cabinet decided to intensify its pressure on the Palestinian Authority, with military operations beginning even before the ministers had met with the Israel Defense Forces' high command and top Shin Bet security service officials.
In less than 24 hours, Palestinian attacks resulted in the deaths of 21 Israelis, including the nine killed Saturday night in Jerusalem in a suicide bombing, a policeman who was killed in the Judean desert on Saturday, seven soldiers and three civilians who were killed by a lone sniper at a checkpoint near Ofra yesterday, and a soldier who was killed yesterday at the Kissufim junction in the Gaza Strip.
By press time last night, four Palestinians had been killed in Israeli retaliatory raids in the West Bank. Israel hit at two Palestinian Military Intelligence checkpoints in the town of Salfit, near Ariel, where one Palestinian officer was killed; two Palestinians were killed at Kafr Hibla, southeast of Qalqilyah, and a fourth Palestinian man was killed in Ramallah, in an Israel Air Force raid.
Last night, both right-wing ministers and right-wing demonstrators outside the cabinet session were demanding wide-scale action against the Palestinians, with the demonstrators chanting: "We did it in 1967 and 1973; why not now?" and cabinet members such as Labor and Social Affairs Minister Shlomo Benizri (Shas) calling for a direct attack on PA Chairman Yasser Arafat.
But the cabinet meeting last night appeared to be tilting toward a less strategic course of action, with the ministers opting, for now, to send the air force to strike at PA installations, as well as Fatah and Tanzim targets.
Labor's ministers backed Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer's proposal to continue applying pressure to the terrorists, but to avoid harming symbols of the PA. Ben-Eliezer vetoed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to return IDF tanks to Ramallah so as to pin Arafat down in his offices there.
Right-wing National Infrastructures Minister Avigdor Lieberman proposed last night that Israel bomb Palestinian commercial centers, cut off the electricity and phone lines to the PA and destroy all its gas stations, "so that within three days, they'll surrender and ask for a cease-fire."
Meanwhile, the two main combat brigades in the West Bank - the Golani and Paratroop brigades - regrouped after withdrawing from the Balata and Jenin refugee camps, which they had occupied over the weekend during searches for weapons factories and armed militiamen.
Some 25 Palestinians, mostly armed resisters to the IDF operations, were killed during the fighting in the camps, prompting, some sources said, the suicide bombing of Saturday night and yesterday's attack on the West Bank checkpoint, where 10 people died at the hands of a lone sniper.
Last night, the IDF was opposed to an immediate wide-scale offensive, along the lines of the Golani and Paratroop brigades operations of the weekend, saying that both brigades needed time to regroup and adding that in any event, targets for such an operation would have to be defined.
But government sources reportedly said that the coming days would see an intensification of Israeli military action against Palestinian targets.
IDF sources reported that a lone Palestinian sniper, probably trained by Force 17 and using an old World War II-era carbine outfitted with a telescopic sight, had taken up a position on a hilltop overlooking a military checkpoint near the settlement of Ofra. From about 50 meters away, the sources said, the gunman had begun cutting down the soldiers at the bottom of the hill.
The 6:40 A.M. attack began on three soldiers who were out in the open. One had gone to check an Israeli car coming from the north, while the other two had waited behind at the checkpoint. An officer and eight more soldiers were in residential quarters near the checkpoint at the time.
The sniper shot single rounds, at a rate that IDF sources said later had been about one shot every 45 seconds. First, he shot at the soldier and the car, killing the driver and the IDF man immediately. He then took aim at the other two soldiers who were outside, killing them instantly too. After stepping out from behind a building, a fourth soldier was wounded in his hand.
Platoon commander Lieutenant David Damlin heard the shooting and left the barrack. He went around the building to the north of the checkpoint and was shot dead when he appeared in the sniper's sights.
At this stage, the medic emerged, looking for wounded. He tried moving around the checkpoint from the south and was shot dead. The remaining soldiers understood that whoever left the barricaded barrack was in danger, so they tried to conduct a battle from there. But they were unable to pinpoint the source of the gunfire.
The soldiers had been told of intelligence reports saying that they might be attacked from the east, where there had been some suspicious movements before the attack began; so they fired toward the eastern hill. But the sniper was on the western one. Indeed, the fact the gunman fired single shots made it even more difficult to identify the source of the shooting and from his commanding position overlooking the checkpoint, the gunman could see everything below, while remaining hidden behind an old olive tree on a terrace above.
The seventh victim was a civilian who arrived from the north. The eighth was the reserve company's sergeant, Avraham Ezra, who arrived on the scene in a patrol jeep after the soldiers at the checkpoint had radioed for help. When Ezra tried to aim at the sniper, he was shot and killed. Some of the soldiers in the jeep with him were also wounded.
The last two victims of the attack were soldiers who arrived in the area in civilian cars. Lieutenant Ariel Hovav, 25, from the settlement of Eli, was due to command a unit of basic trainees in the Paratroop brigade and was on his way to a training session at the brigade HQ. He was shot when he got out of the car to try identifying the source of fire. The tenth victim was a new immigrant from France.
Those killed in the attack were Hovav; reservist Kfir Weiss from Beit Shemesh; Damlin, 29, from Kibbutz Meitzar; Ezra, 38, from Kiryat Bialik; Sergeant Yohai Porat, 26, from Kfar Sava; Sergeant Rafael Levy, 42, from Rishon Lezion; Eran Gad, 24, from Rishon Lezion; Yitzhak Didi of Eli; Sergei Beauturo from Ariel; and Vadim Balbula from Ariel.
The gunman got away after claiming his tenth victim and 25 minutes of shooting, apparently because his weapon gave out. As of dusk, the IDF had not found any evidence to support the theory that there was more than one shooter. The carbine was found, dismantled, though it's not clear if this had been the result of one of the soldiers' bullets or simply because it was old and had given out. There were signs of a telescopic sight, but none was found.
Three people wounded in the Ofra checkpoint attack and 11 wounded in the Saturday night bombing in Jerusalem remained in hospital last night.
Mofaz on the scene
Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz arrived on the scene of the Ofra attack with top regional commanders, Major General Yitzhak Eitan of the Central Command, and Brigadier General Gershon Yitzhak, the commander of the armed forces in the West Bank. IDF sources said Mofaz had appeared "shocked, and boiling mad" because of the circumstances of the incident as it was explained to him.
Yesterday's was the third successful Palestinian attack on a checkpoint in the Ramallah area in less than two weeks. In the first, a soldier from the Paratroop brigade was killed and another lost his weapon when attacked at the Surda checkpoint. In the next incident, six soldiers were killed and a seventh wounded in an attack on Ein Ariq checkpoint, west of Ramallah. The IDF believes the same Palestinian cell is responsible for all the attacks.
Yesterday afternoon, a new position was established above the checkpoint, which the settlers at nearby Ofra say is necessary to prevent drive by shootings on the road.