Israelis kill militia leader, destroy market

Friday, January 31, 2003

JERUSALEM -- Israeli undercover troops killed two Palestinians, including a militia leader, after a car chase Thursday through the West Bank town of Tulkarem, and army bulldozers flattened more than 100 stalls in a Palestinian market in the city of Hebron.

The highly visible military operations in the West Bank followed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's sweeping victory in Tuesday elections, interpreted as voter endorsement of his policy of cracking down on the Palestinians after more than two years of violence.

Final election tabulations, including soldiers' votes, gave one more seat each to two hard-line parties -- Sharon's Likud and the National Religious Party -- at the expense of the centrist Am Echad and Arab-Jewish Hadash factions, the election commission announced Thursday.

The totals give conservative parties a clear majority of 69 in the 120-seat parliament.

Coalition of parties

Though the Likud is by far the largest party in the new parliament, Sharon still has to put together a coalition to win a majority in the house.

The prime minister has said he prefers a broad-based team including the liberal Labor Party, soundly defeated in the election, but he also has an option of setting up a hard-line team without Labor.

In military operations Thursday, undercover Israeli soldiers, disguised as Palestinians, chased a car with four members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade militia across the West Bank town of Tulkarem. The car stopped in the center of town, Palestinians said, and the four ran toward a candy store.

The soldiers followed them and opened fire, killing Fayez Jaber, 32, the local leader of the militia, which is linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement. A Palestinian working in the store was also killed. The Israeli military confirmed that only one of the two men was armed, adding that 10 others were arrested.

The Al Aqsa militia has claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks against Israelis, including the most recent suicide attack, in which 23 bystanders were killed by two bombers in Tel Aviv on Jan. 5.

In Hebron, soldiers bulldozed about 100 stalls in the vegetable market, the largest operation in the divided city for months.

The makeshift market was set up in an empty field several years ago after Israel closed the market in the Old City because it is next to an enclave of Jewish settlers.

Israeli tanks and bulldozers moved in and leveled stall after stall, as soldiers fired machine guns to keep Palestinians away.

As an Israeli tank rolled in front of a three-story building, Palestinian youths threw heavy objects at it, including several toilets that smashed into pieces as they crashed off the tank's turret.

No casualties were reported. In a statement, the military said the operation was "in response to the increase of terror attacks originating from the city in which 22 Israeli citizens and soldiers were murdered. In addition, intelligence warnings of planned Islamic terror attacks coming from Hebron have are continuing to be reported."

Soldiers also closed a radio studio and two local TV stations, arresting a worker at one of the stations, broadcasters said. Khaled Masade, director of Nauras TV, said his station broadcasts music shows and films. "We don't know why they are closing us," he said.

In its statement, the army made no reference to shutting down the stations.

Hebron is a focus of constant tension because about 450 Jewish settlers, many among the most militant in the West Bank, live in three enclaves in the center of the city, surrounded by about 130,000 Palestinians. Israeli forces control the section where the settlers live.

After a Dec. 12 ambush in which 12 Israeli soldiers and guards were killed on a path from Hebron to a nearby Jewish settlement, Israeli soldiers moved into the Palestinian sections of the city and took control.

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