Israel Suspends Contacts With Palestinians
Imposes Travel Restrictions After West Bank Shooting

By RAVI NESSMAN Associated Press Writer

GUSH ETZION, West Bank Oct 17, 2005 — Israel suspended negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on issues such as prisoner releases and slapped tough travel restrictions on the West Bank after Palestinian gunmen killed three Israelis and wounded five in drive-by attacks near Jewish settlements.

Sunday's Palestinian attack near the Gush Etzion block of settlements was the deadliest since July. It followed Israeli intelligence warnings that Palestinian militants, who claim they drove Israel out of Gaza by force, would now shift their focus to the West Bank. Israel pulled out of Gaza in September in a unilateral move.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militant group with ties to the ruling Fatah party, claimed responsibility. However, security officials said they believed the Islamic militant group Hamas might have been involved.

The attacks renewed international pressure on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to crack down on militants. Abbas, who is to meet later this week with President Bush in Washington, has been reluctant to take harsh measures against the militants.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade's involvement in the latest attacks would be a particularly grave example of Abbas' failure to exert control, given the link to his own movement.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Israel has suspended negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on issues such as prisoner releases and new arrangements for the Gaza-Egypt border.

"In Israel, we have no desire to return to a reality of daily attacks against Israeli civilians," Regev said. "We want to send a very strong and sharp message to the Palestinians, and the temporary suspension of talks is that message."

The suspension would not affect other contacts between Israeli and Palestinian officials, such meetings between local commanders on security issues.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the shootings were "unfortunate" and accused the gunmen of trying to sabotage efforts to revive peace talks. He urged Israel to reconsider the travel restrictions and suspensions, saying "angry messages, collective punishment and violence will just add to the complexities."

Erekat said Israeli negotiators failed to show up for Sunday's meeting on the reopening of the Rafah terminal on the Gaza-Egypt border. The reopening is crucial for the economic recovery of Gaza.

Israel's tough new restrictions limiting movement in the West Bank are meant to be long-term, security officials said.

The West Bank towns of Hebron and Bethlehem, closest to the Gush Etzion attack, were sealed, and private Palestinian-owned cars were barred from the West Bank's main north-south road.

Security officials said Israel is planning to impose permanent traffic separation in the West Bank, with Israeli motorists using main highways and Palestinians largely forced to drive on back roads.

Arrest raids will be stepped up, the officials said, asking that their names not be used because they were not authorized to speak publicly. In the past month, Israel has rounded up some 700 activists in Hamas and Islamic Jihad, disrupting Hamas' preparations for Jan. 25 parliament elections.

Overnight, soldiers arrested 19 wanted Palestinians in the West Bank, the army said.

The decisions to restrict movement in the West Bank were made at high-level consultations led by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. They reversed a relaxing of restrictions gradually implemented since a February cease-fire. The limitations, in place for most of the past five years of fighting, crippled the Palestinian economy and caused widespread hardships.

Israel says the Palestinians must dismantle militant groups if they want to restart peace talks.

"The Palestinian Authority has to move from the talking stage to the action stage," Mofaz said. "We will not be able to continue in this process if the Palestinian Authority does not start taking concrete actions against the terror groups."

In the first attack, militants speeding by the Gush Etzion junction fired at Israelis waiting at a bus stop and at others in nearby cars.

Israeli rescue services said one Israeli died at the scene and two others died in the hospital. Two victims were women, cousins aged 23 and 21, and the other was a 15-year-old boy.

On Monday, hundreds of settlers at the spot built a memorial by piling up stones and affixing Israeli flags. Shmuel Jeselshon, 37, from the nearby Rosh Tzurim settlement, said the Gaza withdrawal has encouraged Palestinian militants.

"Under pressure, we left Lebanon. Under pressure, we left Gaza. And they (the militants) think that under pressure we will leave here. That's a mistake," Jeselshon said.

The second attack took place near the settlement of Eli in the northern West Bank. Rescue services said one Israeli was wounded seriously.

Also Sunday, Israeli troops killed an Islamic Jihad militant in the northern West Bank.

Palestinian hospital officials said Nihad Abu Ghanim, 27, died after being shot in the head, abdomen and chest. A bystander was seriously wounded. Abu Ghanim was the top Islamic Jihad militant in Burkin, a village outside Jenin.

The army said Abu Ghanim was killed when Israeli troops spotted an armed Palestinian. The man shot at them and they returned fire, killing him, the army said.

A Palestinian witness said two Israeli jeeps drove up to Abu Ghanim as he was driving down the road and shot him.