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30 Jan 2004 13:35
Israeli forces raided the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Friday in response to a deadly Jerusalem bus bombing and blew up the house of the assailant.
Ten Israelis were killed and more than 50 wounded in Thursday’s suicide attack, the deadliest in four months. Such bombings in the past triggered large-scale Israeli military raids, but Israel this time appeared to have decided on a more measured response.
The Bethlehem incursion, the first in six months, was small in scale, and Israel did not clamp a closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as it had done routinely in the past.
There were competing claims of responsibility for Thursday’s suicide bombing, with Hamas announcing on its website that it was behind the attack.
Hours after the blast, however, the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, an armed group with ties to Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, said it sent the bomber.
The target of the Bethlehem raid was the Aida refugee camp on the outskirts of town.
Soldiers ringed the house of the bomber, Ali Jaara. Figures could be seen moving past brightly lit windows in the building’s second floor and walking down an outdoor staircase. A few hours later, troops blew up the house with explosive charges.
The military said only that an operation was in progress in Bethlehem and surrounding areas and that troops arrested several suspected militants. It was the first military operation in the city since troops left the town in July as part of a larger withdrawal called for under a United States-backed peace plan.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat condemned the raid.
“Instead of sending soldiers and tanks to Bethlehem, Israel’s government should have sent negotiators to resume a meaningful peace process,” Erekat said.
Also on Friday, troops shot and killed an Islamic Jihad member, Jihad Suwaiti, near the West Bank city of Hebron. The military said the man fired shots from a Kalashnikov assault rifle as soldiers came to arrest him, and troops returned fire, killing him.
In the Gaza Strip on Friday, a tank crew shot and killed two Palestinians. The military said it fired on a group carrying two explosive devices and rocket-propelled grenades near the Israeli settlement of Dugit shortly after midnight. Palestinian hospital officials said one of the men was wearing a military-style uniform and both bodies were badly disfigured by shrapnel.
Elsewhere in the West Bank, troops demolished six buildings—one of them a four-storey apartment complex—where Hamas militants captured by Israeli forces used to live. More than 50 people were left homeless. The arrested men from the violent Islamic group are accused by Israel of being behind two recent shooting ambushes that killed five soldiers.
Also, Israeli troops arrested the Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank town of Jenin. Sharif Tahaymeh had been on Israel’s wanted list for more than three years.
The stepped-up military activity appeared to be a response to Thursday morning’s suicide bombing in Jerusalem, which ripped apart a bus just a block from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s official residence. Sharon was not home at the time of the blast.
Late on Thursday, Sharon and Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz met to consider options after the bombing. Israel’s leadership was divided over how hard to hit back but appeared to have decided on a measured response.
The bomber, Ali Jaara (24), was a Palestinian police officer—causing much chagrin within the Palestinian Authority, which has been under international pressure to use its police force to stop such attacks.
The attack disrupted a visit by two senior US State Department officials, David Satterfield and John Wolf, who were trying to persuade Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia to meet with Sharon as a way of restarting the stalled “road map” peace plan.
The two envoys were at Israel’s Defence Ministry when the bomber struck.
Satterfield and Wolf proposed hosting a meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials later on Thursday to discuss the growing humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian areas, but Sharon cancelled the meeting after the blast.
Sharon charged that the Palestinian Authority, headed by Arafat, “does not lift a finger to remove the scourge of terrorism from its midst”.
He was speaking at a state memorial ceremony for three soldiers whose bodies were returned to Israel on Thursday in a swap with the Lebanese Hezbollah. The soldiers were to be buried later on Friday.
Also handed over was an Israeli businessman, Elhanan Tannenbaum, who faced police and security service interrogation about the dealings that brought him to Beirut and Hezbollah captivity. All four were abducted in October 2000.
In exchange, Israel freed 400 Palestinian prisoners and 36 others and returned the bodies of 60 Lebanese. The lopsided figures gave rise to criticism of the deal.—Sapa-AP
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