Israel strengthens its grip on West Bank territory

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The Independent Online

Israel insisted on Wednesday that it does not intend to seize back Palestinian-administered parts of the West Bank despite sending extra troops and tanks into the occupied territories, but a senior official warned that the policy could change.

Amid international consternation over the growing crisis, Israeli government officials said the reinforcements were intended as a warning to Yasser Arafat, rather than the first step in a plan to reinvade and topple the Palestinian Authority, as many fear.

"Contrary to the reports, we don't intend to reconquer, so to speak, the territories," said Israel's Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, during a trip to London. Tony Blair called on both sides to show restraint, citing Israel's "targeting killings" as one of the practices inflaming the crisis.

Mr Blair's concerns – and those of the United States, the EU and a host of human rights groups – over Israel's extra-judicial killings have made no impression on the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, or his security cabinet. Yesterday the latter decided to extend its unlawful policy of "interceptions" – a euphemism for assassinations.

In Bethlehem thousands of angry mourners, some brandishing guns and Islamic flags, gathered on the streets for the funeral of the latest four Palestinians to be "intercepted" by the Israelis – four men, two from Hamas, who were killed by rockets fired from Israeli Apache helicopters into a farm building on Tuesday.

The Palestinians quickly responded to these assassinations by firing two mortar shells from Beit Jala, an Arab village outside Bethlehem, across a valley into Gilo, a Jewish settlement built on occupied Arab land but seen by Israelis as the crucially important southern wall of Jerusalem.

Although the shells caused no injuries – and although Beit Jala was repeatedly pounded by Israeli tank shells earlier in the conflict – Israel reacted to the mortar bombs with fury and dispatched more troops and armour to the West Bank. The mortar attacks, some of the more histrionic elements of the Israeli media declared yesterday, were the first Arab shelling of Jerusalem since the 1967 Six Day War.

The scale of the Israeli reinforcements remained a military secret but the numbers appeared limited.

The extra troops have been concentrated around the Jenin and Bethlehem, where officials said the number of Israeli soldiers surrounding the city had been increased on three sides.

The Palestinian leadership depicted the troop movements as another highly significant destabilising tactic by Mr Sharon – to be added to the siege of the occupied territories, house demolitions, extra- judicial killings and wrecking raids into their territory.

"These huge numbers of military units, tanks and heavy artillery have only one goal ,which is to attack the Palestinian National Authority," said Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, an aide to Mr Arafat, "These reinforcements ... are pushing the fragile situation to the edge of explosion."

Mr Sharon might be intending to resist the calls to war from his friends on Israel's hard right – including some in his Cabinet – and has possibly embarked on sabre-rattling in the hope that this will convince Mr Arafat to rein in extremists.

The Prime Minister was acting "according to the national interest ... and not according to a desire to satisfy lusts", said the Israeli cabinet secretary, Gideon Saar – although he warned that "Israel's policies of applying force can also change".

Whether this will work is doubtful. Mr Arafat views suicide bombing attacks against Israel as damaging to his interests, yet he has been unable to stop them – not least because he does not feel his support on the streets is strong enough to allow him to throw the militants in prison, as Israel demands. There is already broad public support for a war against Israeli occupation. Israel's strategy of sending in more soldiers, and committing more assassinations, only encourages militancy among Palestinians.

Khader Abu Abbarah, an official with the militant Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) told The Independent yesterday: "Israel is strengthening the opposition parties, like Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

"The policy of Ariel Sharon is motivating people to get involved in the struggle. Before the intifada, the PFLP were too weak to do anything because of the seven dry years of Oslo, but now we are strong enough to fight and defend ourselves."