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Three Israeli Soldiers Die in Foiled Raid Against Hamas Soldiers May Have Been Killed Accidentally by Comrades; Palestinian Authority Leaders Condemn Planned Seizure

By Mary Curtius

An elite Israeli army unit’s raid Saturday night on a West Bank village to capture a leader of the militant Hamas Islamic movement went awry, the army chief of staff said Sunday.

Three Israeli soldiers killed during a gun battle with Mahmoud abu Hunoud may have been hit by “friendly fire,” Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz said. A fourth soldier, who was wounded, may also have been shot by his comrades. Abu Hunoud was slightly wounded but escaped, surrendering later to Palestinian security forces in nearby Nablus.

It was the most casualties the army has suffered in a West Bank operation since 1996. Senior army officers and political leaders here seemed stunned by the raid’s outcome.

“There was a very grave mishap,” Mofaz told a news conference. Mofaz said that he appointed a special panel to investigate the raid and that he expects to know in a few days what happened.

Hamas leaders Sunday praised Abu Hunoud, saying he successfully fought off the Israeli forces single-handedly, although the Israeli army said it captured a second Hamas militant, whom it identified as Nidal Ghallamseh, 36, during the raid on Assira Shamaliya. The army said the gun battle took place at Ghallamseh’s house, and it bulldozed the home Sunday morning.

The army would not say how many soldiers were involved in the operation.

Palestinian Authority officials denounced the Israeli raid on the village.

“The raid against the village is condemned and rejected particularly at a time they (Israelis) are talking about peace,” Palestinian peace negotiator Ahmed Korei told Voice of Palestine radio.

The village lies in a part of the northern West Bank that is under Palestinian civilian control and Israeli military control. The army said it notified the Palestinian Authority of the raid when it began and praised the Palestinians for cooperating.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak described the deaths of the three soldiers as “a serious and painful operational mishap,” but vowed that Israel “will continue to fight with all its forces against terrorism despite the very heavy price.”

The three dead soldiers were identified as Liron Sharvit, 20, Niv Yaacobi, 20, and Roi Even Filsteiner, 21. All three held the rank of first sergeant and were serving in the Duvdevan, or Cherry unit, whose members often dress as Arabs during operations in the West Bank.

Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh defended the raid on Assira Shamaliya, a village of 8,000 that lies about one mile north of Nablus. The village, Abu Hunoud’s hometown, is considered a Hamas stronghold by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

“We don’t know yet what went wrong,” Sneh said. “What we do know for sure is that the operation saved the lives of dozens of Israelis by preventing a spectacular terrorist operation which could be carried out by Abu Hunoud.”

The Israelis suspect Abu Hunoud of masterminding a 1997 bombing on Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem’s central food market, that killed 18, including two suicide bombers, and several other attacks inside Israel and in the West Bank.

Israel Radio reported that Barak may ask the Palestinian Authority to hand over Abu Hunoud. But a Hamas spokesman in Gaza said Sunday that the organization had received assurances from the office of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat that Abu Hunoud would not be given to Israel.

“A step like this will not be accepted by Hamas or any Palestinian,” Hamas spokesman Mahmoud Zahar said.

Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have said recently that Hamas has stepped up its efforts to launch attacks in the territories and inside Israel in an effort to thwart ongoing peace negotiations.

In July, Palestinian police said they uncovered a Hamas bomb factory in Nablus. The army on Sunday said that Abu Hunoud was suspected of organizing that factory.