The two settlers, who were later identified as off-duty soldiers, fired back at the car, killing one Palestinian.

Criminal intention

The attack was the deadliest on settlers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank since the start of this year, which has seen a sharp fall in attacks against Israelis.

Both the Islamic Jihad group and the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, the armed wing of Fatah, claimed responsibility for the shooting.

But al-Malki said the shooting might have been more criminal than political.

Ashraf al-Ajrami, the Palestinian minister for prisoner affairs, said Israel was unfairly blaming the Palestinians for the attack, insisting that they were living up to commitments they gave in November's peace conference in the United States at Annapolis, near Washington.

"What happened today ... is proof that the government is making every effort to provide law and order in Palestinian lands," he said.

Strengthening security

The three men were killed in a shootout in the
West Bank village of Halhul near Hebron [AFP]
Ajrami said that Palestinian forces had previously found it difficult to guarantee security across the West Bank because they could not operate in many areas.

"Until now, Israel has not permitted the government to operate in all parts of the West Bank to break up armed cells, even though the government has made real progress in this area," he said.

Abdelrazak Yehya, the Palestinian interior minister, said that they are planning to strengthen their forces with the addition of 50 Russian-made armoured personnel carriers in January.

Israel held up the delivery of the vehicles earlier this month when the Palestinians asked that the vehicles be armed with heavy machine-guns.

Yehya would not specify how the vehicles would be armed, but said they would "only be used to transport soldiers".