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2 off-duty Israeli soldiers shot dead by Palestinians, killed 1 assailant before they died
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    JERUSALEM — Two off-duty Israeli soldiers hiking in the West Bank were killed Friday by Palestinian gunmen but before they died, they managed to fire at their assailants and kill one of them, according to the military and a woman who was with the hikers but escaped unharmed.
    The woman, who was not identified, told Israel Radio she and the two Israelis, who were both in their 20s, had been hiking in the hills outside the Palestinian town of Hebron when they were approached by a jeep carrying several Palestinian gunmen who fired at them. The army confirmed those details and added that the two Israelis returned fire with assault rifles they were carrying before they died.
    The army said a second Palestinian assailant was seriously wounded in the firefight. Palestinian security officials confirmed one Palestinian died in the clash. No Palestinian militant group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
    Witnesses who arrived at the site later said they saw a jeep riddled with bullet holes and spattered with blood being towed away for investigation. They said Israeli troops and Palestinian police were working together at the scene.
    The army said the two soldiers killed were Jewish settlers who lived in Kiryat Arba, a settlement next to Hebron.
    The apparent ambush came hours after troops killed a bodyguard for the Palestinians’ chief negotiator in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
    Meanwhile, an official in Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office said he has issued a new directive to all government ministries requiring his approval for construction of Jewish housing in the West Bank.
    Several lower-level bureaucratic decisions this month to move ahead with such construction caught Olmert off guard and angered the Palestinians and the United States just as Israel and Palestinians were renewing U.S.-brokered peace talks.
    The official in Olmert’s office, speaking on condition of anonymity because the decision had not yet been officially announced, said the directive did not apply to east Jerusalem which Israel annexed in 1967 but which is claimed by the Palestinians as the capital of their future state.
    Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said Friday that Olmert has not called off plans to build the new homes in Har Homa, and has not ordered a halt to all construction in West Bank settlements.
    Israel will not confiscate land for new settlement construction and will not ‘‘outwardly expand’’ its West Bank settlements, Regev said, meaning that construction can continue inside the settlements’ existing borders. Israel also has canceled financial incentives designed to persuade Israelis to live in the West Bank, Regev said.
    ‘‘But in the Israeli perspective, the West Bank is not Jerusalem and Jerusalem is not the West Bank,’’ he said.
    In an overnight raid in Ramallah, Israeli forces shot and killed a bodyguard for Ahmed Qureia, the chief Palestinian negotiator in the peace talks recently relaunched after a violent hiatus of seven years.
    Israel has been limiting its operations in the West Bank, ruled by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as it negotiates a peace agreement with Abbas’s moderate government. On Thursday, Qureia announced that peace talks would continue after a spat over Israeli settlements.
    But late Thursday, the Israeli military sent a team into a suburb of Ramallah, the seat of Abbas’ government, to arrest one of Qureia’s bodyguards, a member of the Palestinian security forces who the military said was implicated in armed activity against Israel and had provided weapons to other militants. He opened fire at troops and they fired back, killing him, the military said.
    Palestinian security officials denied the 23-year-old bodyguard fired at troops.
    Qureia, a former Palestinian prime minister, condemned the operation. Israel is trying to hinder progress in talks ‘‘by doing the opposite of its commitments and pledges to the international community, the most dangerous of which is the continuous assassinations of Palestinian fighters,’’ he said in a statement Friday.