The killing of Hussein Abayat, described by Israel as the "terrorist mastermind" responsible for the deaths of three of its soldiers, came on the day President Clinton launched his latest attempt to salvage the peace process, meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Washington.
Two women passing by were killed in the attack in this bucolic village bordering Bethlehem, and 11 people were wounded, including another well-known Palestinian gunman.
Despite Prime Minister Ehud Barak's earlier pledges not to take pre-emptive actions--a policy he had said would destroy prospects for a return to the negotiating table--the move was a concession to army chiefs who have been eager to strike the Palestinians with greater force.
"It was a pre-emptive strike by intention," Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh told The Associated Press. "For sure it is a signal. If the game is a guerrilla war, we are the champions of the world."
More than 180 people have been killed in six weeks of clashes, the vast majority of them Palestinians. But targeting leaders raised the stakes, and the Palestinians swiftly pledged retaliation.
Hassan Asfour, a senior Palestinian negotiator known for his good relations with the Israelis, told Palestinian television he had warned them that "the long arm cannot reach out without having its fingers cut off."
Abayat was a commander in Fatah, Arafat's faction of the PLO, and a leaflet signed by the group appeared in Bethlehem on Thursday night calling Israeli army chief Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz a "wanted man."
Clinton met with Arafat on Thursday and is set to meet with Barak on Sunday, probably his final effort to salvage a peace process he cultivated so carefully for seven years.
Arafat and Clinton met for more than two hours. Clinton then emerged from the White House with bitter condemnation of Israel, who he blamed for the wave of violence that has shattered already faint peace hopes.
After shaking hands with Clinton and a good-bye salute at the White House door, Arafat told reporters in a rain-swept driveway, "I am not the one who initiated the violence. My tanks are not sieging Israeli towns," he said, interrupting his interpreter to make sure his views were correctly relayed. "We are facing a very dangerous situation that is really injuring the peace process."
Despite those comments, the Palestinian leader added, "I reiterated my firm commitment to making peace," and said the outcome depends on the efforts that Clinton exerts.
Arafat raised with the president his proposal that the United Nations set up an international force to protect Palestinians from Israel. He did not say how Clinton reacted, but the State Department has dismissed the idea all week.
The president's national security adviser, Sandy Berger, declined to discuss the specifics of the incident Thursday but said: "Violence breeds violence and we must find a way to break this cycle. It's important for people on both sides to do all they can to try to achieve that."
In Israel, Mofaz predicted a rash of violence in the immediate future, but said the time had come to show Israel's power.
"In the short run, this response will increase the activity of armed Fatah men in the area," he acknowledged to Israel radio. "But in the long run, everyone who wants to harm Israeli army soldiers and citizens of Israel must know that he won't be spared."
Senior Israeli military staff appeared almost eager to share details of the attack--a sign that it was intended as a warning.
"We have been watching him for quite a long time, looking for a good opportunity, whenever he is preparing some new attack," Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, the army's operations chief, told the AP.
Eiland said Israeli forces watched Abayat observe an Israeli position, then walk over to his parked truck with two colleagues and get in. He said the army believed Abayat was transporting weapons to conduct an attack. "This is the moment that we chose in order to shoot him," he said.
Another army official, Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Eitan, said intelligence showed Abayat was on his way to attack an Israeli military camp in the area.
Moments earlier, Abayat had been enjoying a cup of coffee with a woman friend and her aunt--and mocking the helicopters hovering overhead.
"They came to visit us and we were just talking and making fun of helicopters in the sky," said Jahane Shaabat. "And then I had to take my aunt somewhere and we started to leave, and they got in their cars and when they were leaving they were hit."
One rocket hit Abayat's green truck, where he was sitting, and another hit the street, breaking up the pavement.
Two women in their 50s were killed, and seven civilians were wounded. Witnesses said the civilians had been clearly visible. The army said no civilians were visible nearby.
Within minutes of the attack, the street--winding up an exposed hill--was filled with medics and security officials. The truck was a mangle of twisted, blackened metal.
Four other gunmen, two in the truck with Abayat and two in a car traveling behind, were wounded. Palestinian officials said Abayat had been on patrol, in a pickup truck with civilian plates.
"He was a soldier for the Palestinian Authority," said Fadi Salahat, whose uncle Khaled--another commander in Arafat's Fatah faction--was critically wounded. "He was patrolling the area to protect the people of Bethlehem and Beit Sahour from Israeli occupiers."
Salahat, who is also a senior intelligence officer, was kept under close guard in Beit Sahour hospital.
It has not been unusual for Israel to launch helicopter gunship attacks on Palestinian targets in retaliation for shooting attacks, but until now the targets have mainly been sites such as military headquarters and police stations, with any attack preceded by warnings to evacuate.
There was no warning in this case--"if you are aiming for a person you don't give a warning," Eiland said.