Israelis enter West Bank city, surround holy site

Monday, February 11, 2002

NABLUS, West Bank -- Israeli tanks entered the West Bank city of Nablus early today, witnesses said, surrounding a hotly-contested Jewish shrine that Israel had abandoned one month after the current uprising began.

Palestinians said the Israeli invaders encountered heavy resistance and gunfire. At least 20 tanks entered the city, and soldiers declared a curfew in the area, ordering Palestinians to stay in their houses, witnesses said.

The Israeli military had no immediate comment.

The incursion was the second in as many days. On Sunday, Israeli tanks, soldiers and armored personnel carriers entered another part of Nablus, seizing an apartment building overlooking the city. A military statement following Sunday's two-hour operation said it was in response to several Palestinian attacks in the Nablus area.

Hard-line Israelis have been clamoring for their government to retake Joseph's Tomb ever since it was evacuated in October 2000 following a two-day pitched battle in which six Palestinians and an Israeli border policeman were killed.

The site, believed by many Jews to be the burial place of the biblical Joseph but claimed by Palestinians as the tomb of an Arab sheik, is inside the West Bank's largest Palestinian city and can be accessed only by entering a crowded Arab neighborhood.

Until Israel pulled out, armed Israeli convoys brought rabbinical students to the site to study in a makeshift college every day and took them out to a nearby Jewish settlement at night.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon returned home from talks in Washington, where he told President Bush that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is responsible for the Palestinian violence.

Palestinians charge that Israel is to blame because of its policies of harsh restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank and Gaza and its repeated operations aimed at killing suspected militants.

Earlier at Beersheba, two Palestinian gunmen sprang from a car and sprayed automatic gunfire at Israelis outside a military base in the southern desert city of Beersheba Sunday, killing two soldiers and seriously wounding five people before the attackers were shot dead by troops.

Also, for the first time in the fighting, Palestinians fired two high-powered Qassem-2-type rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip, Israel's military said. The rockets landed in farm fields, but Israel said it regards Palestinian use of the weapon as a serious escalation.

In apparent retaliation, Israeli warplanes and helicopters struck the main Palestinian security installation in Gaza City and what Israel said was a rocket factory in the nearby Jebalya refugee camp.

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