Fatal Israeli-Palestinian clashes follows Bush announcement

Friday, March 8, 2002

JERUSALEM -- A Palestinian gunman infiltrated a Jewish settlement in Gaza and killed five Israelis late Thursday. Israel hit back early Friday with attacks in Gaza and Bethlehem, killing a top commander and nine other Palestinians after a day of intense Israeli strikes throughout the Palestinian territories.

The latest violence came hours after President Bush announced he was sending Mideast envoy Anthony Zinni back to the region late next week in an attempt to quell the spiraling violence.

The late night attack on the Atzmona settlement also wounded 20 people, five seriously, before the gunman, who also hurled grenades, was shot and killed, the military said. One of the wounded died in hospital.

Israel Radio reported the military wing of the militant Hamas organization claimed responsibility and said the attacker was Mohammed Farhat, 19, from Gaza City. The station said the infiltrator entered the settlement from the south, near the Palestinian city of Khan Younis.

"I was watching television when I heard gunfire outside very close," said Elisheva Weiss, a mother of nine, talking by phone from the settlement to Israel Radio. She said settlers were instructed by loudspeaker to stay in their houses and keep their lights off.

The new violence followed a day of clashes Thursday that left 13 Palestinians dead, while Palestinian a suicide bomber attacked a West Bank settlement and two other bombing attempts were foiled.

More deaths reported

Israeli forces early Friday attacked a Palestinian police base north of Gaza City. Gunboats fired machine guns and helicopters fired three missiles at the base, witnesses said. Four people were killed and six others wounded, doctors said. Israeli gunfire hit a police explosives storage building, setting off blasts that could be heard all over Gaza City, witnesses said.

In southern Gaza, Israeli forces entered the village of Hozaa, next to Khan Younis, Palestinian security officials said. Four people were killed there as well, including the area commander of Palestinian security, officials said. Maj. Gen. Ahmed Mefraj was the highest-ranking officer ever to die in a clash with Israeli forces, Palestinian security officials said.

The Israeli military had no immediate comment. Israeli tanks and troops entered Bethlehem from two directions early Friday, Palestinians said. Israeli helicopters fired at the Aida refugee camp in the town after Palestinians shot at an Israeli outpost nearby, witnesses said. Two Palestinians were killed, Palestinians said.

An Israeli warplane fired a missile at Palestinian headquarters in Bethlehem, a complex hit hard in previous air strikes. The Israeli military said it attacked a military security building as part of its "efforts to prevent terrorism."

In announcing Zinni's return, Bush called for both sides to end the fighting. He said the Israelis had to show "a vision for peace. There's got to be more than security." Bush said, however, he fully supported Israel's right to defend itself from Palestinian attacks.

He called on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to make a "maximum effort to end terrorism against Israel."

Israeli and Palestinian leaders welcomed Zinni's planned return. "Prime Minister (Ariel) Sharon values and appreciates the work of General Zinni and the efforts he has made in halting the violence, terror and incitement," a statement from Sharon's office said.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Bush administration had reached the conclusion that Sharon's policies were leading to "more bloodshed and deterioration." He hoped Zinni would bring a "concrete plan" to carry out agreed-on plans for a truce and resumption of peace talks.

Thirteen Palestinians were killed Thursday as Israeli troops stormed through two West Bank refugee camps before dawn and rocketed a police station after nightfall in one of Gaza's most crowded camps, sending Palestinian civilians running for cover. In Bethlehem, Israeli airstrikes on Arafat's local headquarters hit so hard they blew open bolted doors in nearby homes.

Israeli leaders said Thursday's campaign was aimed at forcing the Palestinians to stop terror attacks, but there was no sign of that on Thursday.

In the deadly conflict, a Palestinian suicide bomber walked into a Jewish settlement's hotel complex in the West Bank and blew himself up in the lobby, injuring four people.

Another suicide bombing, at a trendy Jerusalem cafe, was thwarted when the cafe owner, a waiter and a customer jumped the man, shoved him outside and grabbed his bag after they saw wires dangling from it. "Who, me?" the man asked when confronted, cafe owner Gabi Aldoratz told Israel radio.

At a shopping center in Pardes Hanna, a city in Israel's north, a resident spotted a suspicious object and called police. As a bomb disposal team approached, the bomb exploded, police said. No one was hurt.

Sharon, stung by an earlier rebuke from Secretary of State Colin Powell, responded that the conflict was "imposed on Israel by the Palestinian Authority and its leader."

"Israel has never declared war on the Palestinians. Israel fights back against terror organizations in the framework of its right of self-defense. He who started this war has the power to stop it, but continues to prefer a war of terrorism," Sharon's office said in a statement.

A defiant Arafat insisted Palestinians would not be cowed by the escalating strikes.

"No one can shake the Palestinians," he told reporters in the West Bank town of Ramallah on Thursday, hours after Israel fired missiles at his headquarters complex for the third night in a row. "If the Israelis believe that they can frighten them by tanks or by missiles or by Apaches (helicopter gunships), then they are mistaken."

Sharon ordered the military strikes, among the most intense and wide-ranging of the 17-month-old conflict, after more than two dozen Israelis were killed last weekend in a string of Palestinian attacks.

In the West Bank, about 80 tanks and armored vehicles entered the town of Tulkarem late Wednesday and surrounded the adjacent refugee camps of Tulkarem and Nur Shams, meeting sharp resistance from dozens of Palestinian gunmen, witnesses said. Twenty-four hours later, gunmen and soldiers were still exchanging fire.

Nine Palestinians were killed in the fighting, including a rescue worker, Palestinians said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned the killing of the aid worker and called on Israel to "thoroughly investigate the incident and to take the necessary action against those responsible."

In the West Bank village of Siris, Israeli forces killed a leader of the militant Islamic Jihad, Mohammed Anani, 27, who opened fire on soldiers as they approached his home, witnesses said. Anani had been wanted by Israel for involvement in suicide bombings.

Also Thursday, Israeli warplanes fired missiles at a Gaza City complex that had been hit many times before. After Thursday's strike, only two of 25 buildings in the compound remained standing. The missiles sent rubble and glass flying hundreds of yards, and eight people were wounded. Children at a nearby school ran from the area.

Two Palestinians were killed in gunbattles with Israeli troops in central and northern Gaza on Thursday, Palestinian doctors said. Also Thursday, Israeli gunboats fired missiles at a Palestinian police roadblock near the Gaza City coast and wounded 13 policemen, three critically, Palestinian security officials said.

After dark Thursday in the West Bank town of Dura, Israel hit the headquarters of Force 17, an elite Palestinian force, but no one was inside. Helicopters also struck the local headquarters of Fatah in nearby Yatta, the military said.

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