Palestinian Attack on Israeli Army Kills Three

Three Palestinian gunmen infiltrated a fog-shrouded Israeli army post at dawn Thursday, killing three soldiers in a fierce gun battle before they were shot dead, the army said.

The attack on the outpost guarding the isolated Morag settlement in southern Gaza came a day after a 19-year-old Palestinian woman killed two officers of the paramilitary border police in a homicide bombing at a crowded Jerusalem bus stop.

Heavy fog in southern Gaza made it possible for three attackers to enter the army post. A gun battle erupted at about 6 a.m. and lasted for about 45 minutes, said Nissim Bracha, a Morag resident.

Three Israeli soldiers were killed and a fourth was critically wounded, the army said. Two gunmen were killed in the first fighting and a third escaped, the army said. Two AK-47 assault rifles were found on the body of the two gunmen.

Later Thursday, the third gunman opened fire as journalists were touring the site. A reporter from the Yediot Ahronot daily was wounded in the thigh, medics said. The third gunman was killed in the second round of fighting.

In a phone call to The Associated Press, three groups claimed joint responsibility for the attack on the army post.

The caller said the gunmen were from Islamic Jihad (search), the Popular Resistance Committee — an umbrella group of Palestinian factions — and the Ahmed Abu El-Rish Brigades, a group with ties to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.

The attack comes as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) faces mounting opposition to his plan to withdraw from all Gaza Strip (search) and four West Bank settlements by September 2005. Morag is one of the first settlements marked for evacuation.

In an interview with Israeli television on Wednesday, Sharon said the pullout would begin in the summer of 2005 and would take about 12 weeks. Under the plan, all 21 Gaza settlements and four in the West Bank will be dismantled.

Since Sharon announced his withdrawal plan in December, militants have increased attacks as the groups vie for leadership positions and try to make the pullout look like a Palestinian victory. Israel, meanwhile, has come down harder on Palestinians in Gaza to make sure it doesn't appear that the army is fleeing the area.

In Wednesday's suicide bombing, 19-year-old Zainab Abu Salem from the Askar refugee camp near the West Bank city of Nablus circumvented several Israeli checkpoints, made her way to Jerusalem and blew up as two paramilitary policemen tried to check her bag at a crowded bus stop. The two officers were killed and 16 people waiting at the bus stop were hurt.

The bombing at the busy intersection in the French Hill neighborhood destroyed a police post, leaving shards of glass scattered in the road as the smell of burning rubber wafted in the air.

Early Thursday, army bulldozers demolished the home of the bomber's family. The army said it also destroyed the home of the man suspected of dispatching the bomber. Israel destroys the homes of bombers to try to deter other attackers.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search), a violent group tied to Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the bombing.

In an interview with Israel Radio, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) said Al Aqsa is a "part of Fatah," and said it should be folded into the movement's political wing. However, Qureia said it would be difficult to bring the armed group into the fold so long as Israel continues to hunt down and kill Al Aqsa members.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat condemned the attack, saying the Palestinians oppose all violence aimed at civilians.

The bombing came two days before the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, the fast of Yom Kippur, and at a time of heightened police presence throughout the country. Israel imposed a closure on the West Bank last week at the start of the Jewish New Year's holiday, banning Palestinians from entering the country.

Also in Gaza early Thursday, doctors said a 10-year-old girl shot while sitting in her classroom on Sept. 7 died of her wounds. Local U.N. officials blamed Israel, saying troops had fired randomly. The military said there were exchanges of fire with militants, but soldiers did not shoot at the school.