Violent barrier protests turn deadly

Israeli soldiers shot and killed two Palestinians during violent protests against Israel’s West Bank barrier on Thursday, and two Palestinian gunmen killed an Israeli soldier at a Gaza Strip crossing before being gunned down by troops.

The West Bank protesters were trying to block construction workers from putting up a new section of fencing, signalling a new tactic in the fight against the barrier. In the past, demonstrators generally did not confront Israeli work crews. Thursday’s clashes marked the first time Palestinians were killed in an anti-barrier protest.

The violence came a day after Israeli forces raided three banks in the West Bank city of Ramallah and carted away between 30-million and 40-million shekels ($6,7-million to $8,9-million) they said was earmarked for terrorism.
Palestinian officials feared the raid would destroy faith in the banking system.

In the anti-barrier protest in the West Bank village of Bidou, about 1 000 demonstrators threw stones at a jeep and bulldozers trying to prepare the ground for the erection of the partition, residents said. Troops responded with live fire, rubber bullets and tear gas, and the work was eventually stopped, witnesses said.

Bidou Mayor Mohammed Kandil said two Palestinians were killed.

Eleven demonstrators were injured, including three who were in serious condition, hospital officials said.

Ali Daoud (24) said he had been throwing stones when he was shot in the right leg by a sniper from a distance of about 30m.

“We were trying to prevent them from continuing the work on our land, but we found more than 200 soldiers there,” he said from his hospital bed.

A second demonstration in the nearby village of Beit Surik also turned violent, witnesses said.

Police spokesperson Gil Kleiman said six police were wounded in the clashes and three of them were sent to the hospital. The army, which was also there, had no immediate comment.

The barrier, which Israel says is needed to keep out suicide bombers, infuriates Palestinians who say its planned route, dipping deep into the West Bank, is a land grab meant to prevent them from establishing a state.

Three days of hearings on the issue at the world court ended on Wednesday, with the judges expected to hand down a non-binding opinion in the coming months.

The Gaza attack began at about 6 am local time when two Palestinians with assault rifles and hand grenades attacked Israeli soldiers at the Erez crossing, which is used by Palestinian workers to get from Gaza to Israel. Palestinian sources reported an hour-long, intense exchange of fire between the gunmen and soldiers.

An Israeli soldier was killed, the army said.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a militant group linked to Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, claimed responsibility. In response to the attack, Israel closed the crossing.

On January 14, a female suicide bomber killed four Israeli guards at Erez. Following that attack, Israel tightened security at the crossing, causing long delays for the 19 000 Palestinian workers with permits to cross into Israel.

In the bank raids on Wednesday, Israelis sifted through 390 accounts—some linked to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The money taken from the banks corresponded to the amounts found in the targeted accounts, Israeli officials said.

Palestinians denounced the unprecedented raid, with Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia likening it to a mafia operation.

Finance Minister Salam Fayad worried it would lead to a run on banks. However, the banks appeared to have only their normal daily crowds on Thursday morning.

The United States State Department also criticised the raid, saying there was a risk it would destabilise the Palestinian banking system.

Spokesperson Richard Boucher said it would be better if Israel coordinated with the Palestinians on freezing and seizing funds earmarked for militant attacks.

Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz said the money was “the fuel for Palestinian terror”.

The funds taken from the banks would instead be used to ease the lives of Palestinians, battered by 41 months of violence. The money would go to Palestinian health services, school transport, food and improving infrastructure at Israeli roadblocks and checkpoints, Mofaz said. Palestinians demand that the barriers be removed, not improved.

An Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters the Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas had funnelled “millions” to violent Palestinian groups over the past year alone.

One of the confiscated accounts belonged to the al-Ihsan society, a Gaza organisation that is part of Islamic Jihad.

“We don’t have much money to confiscate,” said Nafez Azzam, the society’s head. He said the organisation, which he said runs kindergartens and clinics for the poor, has had trouble raising money because of a US law against sending funds to terror groups.

Israel declared the society illegal last year. The army accused Azzam of working with Hezbollah, coordinating arms smuggling and militant attacks and giving money to the families of suicide bombers.

The Israeli military official said Hezbollah used banks, companies and individuals to get its money to the violent groups.

Gil Feiler, a senior researcher at Tel Aviv’s Besa Centre for Strategic Studies, said little of the foreign money sent to militants is funnelled through banks. Rather, “people are coming with $100 000 in their luggage”, he said.

Israel said the banking system has been hijacked to finance militant groups that have killed more than 900 Israelis in bombings and shootings.

The raids marked the largest search yet for money transfers to militant groups and the first time forces hauled cash out of Palestinian banks.

The raids came a day after Palestinian security officials confirmed that Hezbollah helped fund the last two Jerusalem bus bombings—on January 29 and Sunday—in which 18 Israelis and a foreign worker were killed.

During the raids, dozens of Palestinians threw stones at soldiers, who responded with tear gas, metal-core rubber bullets and live rounds, wounding 42 people, three critically, hospital officials said.—Sapa-AP

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