JERUSALEM - Hours before the start of the Jewish Sabbath, Palestinian gunmen fired on a group of young Israeli hitchhikers outside a West Bank settlement yesterday, killing a teenager and wounding three young people.
The ambush, the second fatal shooting of an Israeli in five days on a West Bank road, came amid sharply rising tensions over attacks by Palestinian militants.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in a meeting this week with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, demanded that the Palestinian leader crack down on militant groups and choke off their attacks against Israeli targets.
Ambushes on lonely West Bank roads have left scores of Jewish settlers dead and wounded during the past 4 1/2 years. But such attacks had become a rarity in recent months, after the main Palestinian militant groups declared a unilateral cease-fire at Abbas' behest.
Israel expressed outrage over yesterday's shooting.
"This is another clear demonstration of how important it is that the Palestinian Authority follow through on its commitment to disarm the terrorists," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry.
Responsibility for most of the recent attacks has been claimed by the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad. But a commander of Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an offshoot of Abbas' Fatah faction, told journalists in the West Bank that his organization was responsible for yesterday's shooting. The claim was not verified by senior leaders of the group, however, raising the possibility that a local cell had acted on its own.
Israel has threatened to resume so-called targeted killings of militants affiliated with Islamic Jihad, although it was not clear whether it intended to take aim only at those thought to be planning imminent attacks. It has not threatened to resume assassinations of members of other militant groups.
Israeli troops rounded up more than 60 suspected members of Islamic Jihad this week after the group claimed responsibility for the killing Monday of a Jewish settler in the northern West Bank. Israel is not a party to the cease-fire Abbas extracted early in his tenure from militant groups. But Sharon's government has warned that it will respond with extreme force if militants stage attacks during the planned withdrawal of Israeli settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip this summer.
The militant groups, for their part, accuse Israel of disrupting what had been relative calm by conducting raids in Palestinian areas. About three times as many Palestinians as Israelis have died since Israel and the Palestinian Authority declared a cessation of hostilities at a February summit in Egypt.
The Israeli army said that in yesterday's attack, assailants with Kalashnikov assault rifles approached a popular hitchhiking post in the late afternoon outside the settlement of Beit Haggai, southwest of the West Bank town of Hebron.
Several young Israelis were getting into a car that had stopped for them when the shooting erupted, an army spokeswoman said. There were no immediate details on the teen who was killed.
Earlier in the day, an Israeli motorist was slightly wounded in a shooting near the West Bank town of Tulkarm.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.