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November 16, 2002

Hebron Attack Was Planned Ambush

The horrible details
HEBRON, West Bank (AP) - The "all clear" sounded over the Israeli soldiers' radios, meaning Jewish worshippers were safely home after Sabbath prayers in the downtown Tomb of the Patriarchs, when shots rang out from an olive grove.
Border policemen in a jeep chased the gunmen into a dead-end alley Friday, only to be cut down by grenades and rifle fire.

Wave after wave of rescuers followed them and also were killed. The 12 victims included Hebron's military commander, Col. Dror Weinberg, who rushed to the scene without his helmet and bulletproof vest.

"The chain of command was quickly damaged," said military analyst Alon Ben-David of Israel television's Channel One. "All the rescuers were drawn into the alley blindly, with the terrorists holding the high ground and sniping at them."

The well-choreographed ambush killed nine members of the security forces and three private guards from the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba. Fourteen soldiers and border policemen were hurt.

Army commanders acknowledged that soldiers made mistakes in handling the ambush. During the more than two hours it took to track down and kill three of the gunmen, the wounded were pinned in the alley.

"The wounded were screaming, 'Save us,' and I saw things ... soldiers without hands, without legs, things that tear the heart," said Arik Mariner, a member of Israel's security forces.

The radical group Islamic Jihad, or holy war, claimed responsibility for the killings, one of Israel's heaviest single military losses during the last two years of fighting.

Hundreds of soldiers patrol Hebron to protect Jewish settlers, a community of 450 people who live in three heavily guarded downtown enclaves in a city of 130,000 Palestinians. The attack stirred fears and hatreds in the tense, fractured city.

The carnage began shortly after 7 p.m. Friday. Jews had just returned from Sabbath prayers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs — a shrine built over a cave where the biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are believed to be buried. The site is holy to Jews and Muslims.

Worshippers wound their way to the Kiryat Arba settlement on Hebron's eastern outskirts.

Worshippers' Lane, as it's called, was dark. Suddenly, bullets whizzed out of an olive grove, shattering the windscreen of a jeep and killing two soldiers.

Almost simultaneously, shots were fired just up the road at security forces guarding a gate to the settlement. One of the attackers was killed by return fire, according to witness and army accounts.

Another jeep raced into a tight alley, pursuing the killers. As troops hopped out, they were hit by a hail of bullets and grenades. Soldiers and armed guards from the settlement who hurried into the dark street to help also were doomed.

"People ran into the fire," said Col. Noam Tibon, an area commander.

Flares floated down, lighting the sky with eery white light.

Mariner said he saw a wounded Weinberg, the regional commander, crawling before he died.

"He crawled to the jeep, and I ran, crawled, to him because there were shots flying above me. I got to him and there was nothing left of him."