Israeli Civilians Trapped In Raging Gun Battle

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Less than a day away from a deadline to meet the terms of a U.S.-brokered ceasefire agreement, Palestinian gunmen near the PA-controlled city of Nablus fired on a group of about 30 Israeli civilians Thursday, wounding at least four of them.

Palestinian sources reported that one Palestinian was killed and eleven wounded in ensuing exchanges of gunfire involving Israeli troops. Israel brought in helicopter gunships to try to repel the gunmen, whose fire had for several hours been preventing helicopters from evacuating wounded Israelis, two of whom are reportedly in serious condition.

Details remain sketchy. An Israeli army spokesman said it was unclear what the Israelis were doing in the area, which has historical and biblical significance.

Radio reports have called the Israelis "hikers" and reported that they had been on a tour in the area in a protected bus but they were allowed to disembark.

Shlomit, one of the hikers, spoke by cell phone to Israel radio and said that she could see the Israeli helicopters but they couldn't reach them. There was nothing for the hikers to do but wait for help, she said.

Mt. Ebal is a biblical site where Joshua built an alter when the people of Israel crossed over into the promised land. It is a popular tourist site for Jews and Christians alike.

Before the incident on Mt. Ebal, an army spokesman said there were only light incidents during the day and the army probably would have reported a slight decrease in attacks. However, the gun battle has cast a shadow over the day.

In Bethlehem, two Palestinian policemen were killed in what authorities there said was an explosion of gas balloons at the headquarters of PA Chairman Yasser Arafat's elite security unit. But a PA police spokesman said it had "nothing to do with the clashes."

President Clinton helped to broker an unsigned agreement between Israel and the PA earlier this week. Security forces from both sides met under the guidance of CIA chief George Tenet, who has worked as an advisor to the PA in the past.

The two sides estimated that a ceasefire would take 48-hours to come into effect, from the end of their meeting.

That "deadline," which military sources have said is not set in stone, arrives at noon on Friday.