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Israel begins retaliation for ambush, seizes West Bank city

Painting a dramatically different picture of a Sabbath eve ambush, Israeli army commanders said Saturday that soldiers, not Jewish settlers, bore the brunt of an Islamic radical attack on Jewish worshipers walking home from prayer in this strife-torn biblical city.

Initial army accounts said the Islamic Jihad gunmen took aim at Israelis making a Friday night trek home to the settlement of Kiryat Arba from the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a religious site holy to both Jews and Muslims.

In fact, only three of the 12 Israelis killed Friday night were civilians _ guards from Kiryat Arba who rushed down a road from their hilltop settlement to help soldiers pinned down in an alley during a protracted gun-battle with three Arab gunmen. Fourteen other Israelis were wounded and evacuated to Jerusalem for treatment.

Israel began retaliating Saturday.

The U.S. State Department condemned the attack as a "heinous crime," adding that while Israel has the right to take antiterrorism measures, it must do everything it can to prevent civilian casualties.

Armored bulldozers demolished three homes where the gunmen took cover. Then soldiers retook whole neighborhoods of the city, seizing young men, blindfolding them and putting them on buses for interrogation. At Kiryat Arba, the army amassed a huge column of armored vehicles to patrol Hebron.

Israel had lifted curfews and stopped troop patrols in many Hebron neighborhoods about three weeks ago to let Palestinians revive their commerce and daily life in time for the monthlong Muslim holiday of Ramadan.

"Now everything is going back. The curfew is back. The city is closed again and the economy will stop again," said army Col. Noam Tibon. "We will find the people. We will catch them and we will destroy all the Islamic Jihad and Hamas cells here in Hebron."

Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the mission in a call to the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television network. A caller said it was in retaliation for the Israeli killing last month of an Islamic Jihad member.

The Friday night attack was one of the boldest in the 2-year-old Palestinian intifada, or uprising. Typically, Palestinians have staged hit-and-run attacks, peppered cars with sniper fire or sent suicide bombers to kill crowds of Israelis. The guerrillas in Hebron used grenades and automatic weapons to battle fully armed soldiers for about two hours of sophisticated, urban warfare.

The firefight was the kind that U.S. military officers fear American soldiers could face if they invade Iraq. Strategically placed, not firing shoulder to shoulder, the Palestinian gunmen in Hebron staked out spots in olive orchards and on rooftops and waited for a parade of civilians to pass inside the settlement. Then they opened fire on an Israeli army jeep patrol, killing two members of the elite Nahal Brigade before drawing other troops into a warren of streets to shoot at them from different directions.

The ambush took a heavy toll, including veteran brigade commander Col. Dror Weinberg, 38, a father of five from Jerusalem, and eight other active duty soldiers and border policemen. Weinberg, the highest ranking Israeli soldier killed in two years, fell trying to help his wounded soldiers inside the Muslim Wadi Nassara neighborhood of Hebron, a hilly city where hatred and tensions are ever present between 450 militant Jewish settlers and some 130,000 Palestinians. An Israeli-Arab border policeman was also killed.

Like clockwork, devout Orthodox Jews visit the downtown Hebron shrine each Friday evening, some coming from sprawling, suburban-style Kiryat Arba, walking a familiar route past Palestinian homes.

Israeli soldiers escort the worshipers, creating a buffer between Arabs and the settlers, who have at times gone on rampages, attacking Arab shops and shooting into the air to assert their sovereignty.

On Friday night, the residents already had filed inside the settlement and the soldiers followed on a dirt road in a jeep and on foot when the attack began.

"In a place like this, there are no boundaries. So we made a wall of soldiers," said Tibon, who arrived for the end of the firefight and took command of the brigade when his comrade fell. "In a way, I prefer to lose soldiers to civilians. It's our job."

In the end, Tibon said, three Arab gunmen were killed. It was not clear whether others were on the mission.

Tibon also said soldiers would be on alert for revenge attacks by Jewish settlers. One group staged a sit-in near the killing site.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.