Israeli attack helicopters killed four suspected Palestinian militants Tuesday in a missile assault, obliterating a cinder block chicken coop in Bethlehem where they were gathered. As radical Palestinians shouted for revenge, a Mideast cease-fire appeared all but dead.
Israelis said the helicopter assault on the structure about a half-mile from the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Christ, was made to pre-empt a Palestinian attack.
"Regrettably, the Palestinian Authority has no intention of stopping the violence and terrorist activity," said Raanan Gissin, an aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. But West Bank Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti denounced the Israeli helicopter strike as a "massacre against Palestinian civilians."
The two Israeli Apache helicopters, tracking a pair of senior figures in the militant movement Hamas, fired four rockets at the shed, which was filled with chicks, turning it into a pile of shattered cinder blocks and mangled wire cages.
Two Hamas men wanted by Israel, Taha Aruj and Omar Saadeh, were killed along with Saadeh's cousin Mohammed Saadeh and a fourth man whose name was not immediately available. Ten Palestinians were hurt, including several who suffered from shock.
Israel said the cousin and the fourth man were suspected Hamas militants.
Hundreds of Palestinian men encircled the rubble afterward, while boys dug through the cinder blocks to scoop up the chicks, only a few of which survived. The hut was part of a small patch of farmland set in a valley and surrounded by homes.
Israeli military officials said the Hamas men were planning a massive attack for the closing ceremony of the eight-day Maccabiah Games, often called the Jewish Olympics, which began Monday and brought more than 3,000 Jewish athletes to Israel.
"We promise our people revenge very soon," Hamas said in a statement afterward. "We call upon our people to continue the uprising until we achieve our rights."
Tuesday's attack was in keeping with a much-criticized Israeli policy of targeting suspected militants. Israeli officials have said they turned lists of dozens of militants over to the Palestinians and demanded their arrest. Palestinian security chiefs said they did not receive the lists and have balked at arresting Palestinians at Israel's behest during the conflict.