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Israeli troops seize Gaza town

Friday, May 16, 2003

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip -- Israeli troops seized a Gaza town on Thursday and five Palestinians were killed, as Palestinians marked the 55th anniversary of the "naqba," or catastrophe, their term for their displacement during the 1948 creation of Israel.

With the latest incursion, aimed at stopping rocket attacks from Gaza at Israeli towns, Israel signaled that it will not let up in its campaign against Palestinian militants, even with the United States and other mediators calling for steps toward calm and the first Israeli-Palestinian summit meeting since 2000 set for Saturday.

At about 3 a.m., Israel sent dozens of tanks into Beit Hanoun in northeast Gaza, as bulldozers tore up Palestinian farmland between the Palestinian town and the Gaza-Israel fence.

In clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians, five Palestinians were killed, including a 12-year-old boy and two 15-year-olds. An Israeli commander denied Palestinian charges that soldiers blocked ambulances from entering and said his troops fired only at gunmen.

In a separate incident late Thursday, soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian who was running toward an Israeli base near Rafah on the Egyptian border, the military said. it was not known if he was armed.

The military said that since April 29, when Mahmoud Abbas took office as Palestinian prime minister, there have been 50 mortar attacks, and 12 homemade Qassam rockets have been fired, most of them at Sderot, an Israeli town about a half mile from the fence.

Staying for a few days

Maj. Gen. Doron Almog, the Israeli commander, said his forces would remain in Gaza for a few days "to strengthen our hold in the territory and in order to improve our activity against the terrorists."

Soldiers blew up four houses and flattened another with a huge bulldozer. The military said they belonged to Hamas militants. The violent Islamic group is behind most of the rocket attacks.

Palestinian Parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia said Thursday that Israel must stop attacks like the one in Gaza. "There can be no talk about the road map or peace process while this aggression and ugly attacks against the Palestinian people continue," he said.

Marwan Shabat, 55, a Beit Hanoun teacher, said the incursion was a continuation of the 1948 "naqba," adding, "but if the occupiers think they can uproot us from our town, they are mistaken."

The "naqba" observance on Thursday, including a three-minute siren call for silent tribute, underlined one of the most intractable problems in the conflict -- the fate of 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes in what became Israel during the war and other events surrounding the country's 1948 creation.

With their descendants, the refugees now number about 4 million, and Palestinian leaders demanded that Israel recognize the refugees' "right of return" to their original homes.

In squalid refugee camps around the West Bank and Gaza, residents cling to that hope. In 1948, Fouad Khader, 74, fled with his family from a village called Bier Ummayen. He ended up in the Kalandia refugee camp between Jerusalem and Ramallah and has been there ever since, raising 13 children.

His old village is gone -- the Israeli city of Modiin was built on the site -- but Khader is not giving up hope. "We have waited 55 years without forgetting our right to our land," he said, hoping that children or grandchildren could return.

For Israel, the "right of return" is a red flag. Six million Jews and more than 1 million Arabs live in Israel now, and Israelis say an influx of Palestinians would destroy the Jewish state.

Israel has demanded that the Palestinians renounce the "right of return" before it takes any significant peace steps. The Palestinian leadership has rejected the condition, noting that the refugee issue is to be negotiated in the final stage of the "road map" plan.

Intense diplomatic activity around the "road map" continued Thursday. European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana held talks with Palestinian leaders in Ramallah. He canceled a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who objected to his plan to see Yasser Arafat, target of an Israeli boycott.

After meeting Solana late Thursday, Abbas said, "We both agreed that this road map might lead into a real peace process." Solana called on both sides to implement the plan.

The "road map," sponsored by the United States, EU, United Nations and Russia, is a three-stage, three-year plan that starts with a halt to 31 months of violence and ends with creation of a Palestinian state.

The Palestinians have accepted the plan, but Israel has posed 15 objections, mainly insisting that Palestinians crack down on violent groups before anything else happens.

In a meeting with Sharon set for Saturday night, Abbas said he will press for Israeli acceptance of the peace plan. The summit is the first since September 2000, days before violence erupted.

Sharon is to discuss the Israeli objections in Washington next week with President Bush.

After his two-day Mideast mission this week failed to win an Israeli commitment on the plan, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that road map steps must be taken in parallel and indicated that Sharon was raising obstacles.

In London, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom called on Britain to do more to prevent the rise of the anti-Semitism, which he said was behind a recent suicide bombing carried out by two British Muslims in Tel Aviv.

Shalom met with Prime Minister Tony Blair and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in talks aimed at reducing recent strains between the two countries.

The relations became strained after Sharon banned Palestinian delegates from attending a Middle East conference in London organized by Blair's office earlier this year.

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