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Female Israeli Soldier Killed in Hebron Ambush

Israeli troops demolished three houses Friday after a Palestinian sniper inside one of them killed two Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint in a dark Hebron street, including the first woman slain in combat in more than two years of fighting.

Also Friday, a suspected Palestinian militant was killed by Israeli troops as he tried to escape arrest near the West Bank town of Bethlehem, the military said.

The sniper, who escaped, ambushed the soldiers along Worshippers Way, a path that connects the large Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba with a fortress-like shrine in Hebron believed to be built above the biblical Abraham's burial cave, holy to Jews and Muslims. Last month, gunmen killed 12 soldiers and guards in an attack in the same area.

Cpl. Keren Yakobi, 19, died instantly as the gunman fired at the army post at the bottom of a hill around 8 p.m. Thursday. Her bloodied body lay on the floor of an army ambulance. Medics pumped the chest of the other soldier, Maor Kalfon, 19, trying to restart his heart, but he died on the way to a Jerusalem hospital.

The military said Yakobi was the first female soldier killed in battle since women were reincorporated into combat units five years ago. Other women doing military service have been killed in suicide bombings in Israel.

Inside the house where the gunman was, bullet casings littered the floor and windowsill of an upstairs room. A small square, big enough for the muzzle of a rifle, was cut from the window screen.

The military said it was unclear if the sniper acted alone or with other shooters. The shots came quick, and soldiers failed to find suspects. Just before dawn Friday, Israeli troops bulldozed the house and apparently vacant homes on either side.

About 450 Jewish settlers live in Hebron, a town of 130,000 Palestinians. Israeli troops patrol downtown to protect settlers who live in heavily fortified enclaves. In the past 26 months, tens of thousands of Palestinians living nearby have been placed under round-the-clock curfews.

Another several thousand Jews live in Kiryat Arba, on the eastern outskirts of the city. Palestinians insist the settlers must leave.

The slain soldiers were part of a special unit created in 1995 to enforce the law among Palestinian and Jewish residents in Hebron, patrolling areas of friction. Soldiers volunteer for the unit and are trained in urban battle scenarios.

Thursday's attack followed more violence in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli soldiers guarding a fence between Gaza and Israel shot and killed five unarmed Palestinians who apparently tried to cross into Israel in search of work. The men, all cousins from the impoverished, battle-wracked town of Khan Younis, were to be buried Friday.

The military said soldiers feared the men were trying to cross into Israel to carry out an attack. Another Palestinian was killed later Thursday trying to do just that, the military said, and another gunman was killed in Gaza trying to infiltrate a fenced-in Jewish settlement.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat, meanwhile, said Friday he asked an Israeli official to allow Yasser Arafat to attend Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem; enforcing a travel ban, Israel last year prevented the Palestinian leader from attending festivities.

"I urged them to honor the agreements and President Arafat's right to go to Bethlehem," Erekat said of his phone conversation with Israeli Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin. Erekat said no decision was made.

Israeli troops have reoccupied most West Bank population centers, including Bethlehem, in response to attacks by Palestinian militants.

Palestinians are hoping for an Israeli withdrawal from Bethlehem before Christmas celebrations, less than two weeks away, in the town where tradition holds Jesus was born. Just under half the town's 27,000 Palestinians are Christian; the rest are Muslims.

Christmas celebrations used to draw thousands of pilgrims before fighting broke out. Tourism drove the city's economy, which is now in ruins.

Pope John Paul II has also weighed in on the issue. In a meeting Thursday at the Vatican, the pope urged Israeli President Moshe Katsav to have Israeli forces out of the city in time for Christmas.

Katsav promised the pope that troops would redeploy before the holiday and pilgrims would have free access to the city as long as there were no warnings of terrorist attacks.

But Israel Radio on Friday quoted an anonymous senior officer saying there were many warnings that militants in Bethlehem were plotting attacks, making it unlikely that troops would leave.

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