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Bethlehem security increased after Israeli officer killed

Thursday, February 13, 2003

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Israeli forces tightened their grip on Bethlehem on Wednesday after a Palestinian sniper killed an Israeli soldier in front of the Church of the Nativity. Israeli forces killed two Palestinians in Gaza with a shell that explodes into thousands of deadly darts.

In the West Bank, soldiers killed a Palestinian teen during a clash in a refugee camp.

The violence came as Muslims marked Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, under stiff travel restrictions, imposed after Israeli officials said they had intelligence warnings that militants were planning major terror attacks during the four-day holiday.

Two Palestinians were climbing a fence early Wednesday in an attempt to enter a Jewish settlement in northern Gaza, the military said, when they were killed. At Gaza's Shifa Hospital, doctors showed reporters the body of one of the men, with a dart about 5 inches long protruding from his chest -- part of a flechette shell.

Flechettes controversial

A flechette shell spreads lethal darts over a wide area, and Israeli army spokeswoman Sharon Feingold said it was used because it was the most efficient weapon in the circumstances.

Palestinians have charged that flechette shells are forbidden under international law, but Miranda Sissons, a Mideast expert with Human Rights Watch in New York, said that there is no formal ban on the flechette.

She told The Associated Press that "they're not banned, but their use in civilian areas would be indiscriminate and disproportionate," and Human Rights Watch has complained about Israel's use of flechette shells several times.

The Israeli military said that all the weapons and ammunition it uses are legal under international law.

Israeli soldiers fired the shell at the two Palestinians at the perimeter of the Dugit settlement in northwest Gaza, built on sand dunes away from Palestinian population centers. The military said the two men were armed with knives and hand grenades.

Israeli parked two tanks in Manger Square after the officer was killed late Tuesday. The army said soldiers were checking a suspicious vehicle when a Palestinian sniper fired from a nearby alley.

Curfew in place

Palestinian residents said the officer was standing just in front of the Church of Nativity when a gunshot rang out. The church marks the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

Shortly after the attack, Israeli soldiers declared a curfew, confining Palestinians to their homes, and two tanks rumbled into the biblical town, heading for Manger Square in front of the church.

The tanks pulled out Wednesday, but soldiers continued to patrol in armored vehicles and jeeps Wednesday.

In mid-June, Israeli forces took control of all West Bank cities and towns, except Jericho, in response to a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings.

They pulled out of Bethlehem during the summer but reoccupied it in November after a suicide bomber from the town blew up a bus in nearby Jerusalem, killing 11 passengers.

Also Wednesday, in the El-Ein refugee camp next to the West Bank city of Nablus, Israeli forces arrested Kamel Khatib, 27, a senior member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade after surrounding his house for several hours, Palestinians said. During the standoff, a 17-year-old Palestinian was shot and killed. Palestinians said he was among several people throwing rocks at soldiers. The Israeli military said soldiers returned fire from gunmen.

The Al Aqsa group, linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, is responsible for dozens of deadly attacks against Israelis, including suicide bombings, though Arafat has spoken out against attacks against Israeli civilians.

In the West Bank, troops also arrested 25 wanted Palestinians in overnight raids in several areas, the army said.


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