Israel withdraws from Palestinian village

West Bank
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Israeli troops and tanks withdrew on Thursday morning from the West Bank village, where at least six Palestinians were killed. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had flagrantly ignored appeals from US President George Bush to pull back his army, then called high-level consultations to consider further military pullbacks.

Israeli armed forces were still refusing to allow foreign correspondents into the area on Wednesday night, blocking their efforts to check Palestinian claims that unrecovered corpses were lying in nearby olive orchards.

The Palestinian cabinet issued a statement charging Israel with an "ugly massacre", saying that nine people had been killed and dozens wounded in the attack, which Israeli officials said was aimed at tracking down the guerrilla cell behind the assassination last week of one of its government ministers.

The assault against Beit Rima, a Muslim village of 4,000 people, came after President Bush had repeated America's demand that Israel should withdraw its forces from six West Bank towns, seized in the army's largest invasion of Palestinian areas since the start of the intifada.

Crucially, though, Mr Bush softened the language – talking of a withdrawal only as "quickly as possible" while his own State Department had been demanding an "immediate" pull-out. Mr Sharon appears to have exploited the small leeway given to him by the American President by carrying on with his military missions.

Far from complying with the wishes of his closest ally, the Israeli leader responded by raising the level of violence still further with a ferocious pre-dawn raid in which the army dispatched troops, undercover agents, tanks and armoured personnel carriers into the village, north of Ramallah. As they charged into one home after another, dozens of people were rounded up for questioning by Shin Bet security agents, and at least 10 were arrested.

The Israel army said that the operation was aimed at the cell which murdered the ultranationalist Tourism minister, Rechavam Zeevi, last week – a killing carried out by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which said it was to avenge the assassination by Israel of its leader Abu Ali Mustafa. But government officials confirmed that security forces were already holding two of the alleged main culprits, arrested elsewhere.

Moderates from Peres' Labor party were uncomfortable with the large-scale operation that was ordered in response to Zeevi's killing on October 17. But some of Sharon's hard-line Likud party colleagues were calling for even stiffer action against the Palestinians.

Defense Ministry spokeswoman Tami Shenkman said the security Cabinet meeting was set for later on Thursday.

Another Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, believed the takeover of the six towns was nearing its end. He said the invasion sent a clear message to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that he must deal with militants.

Exactly what happened in the village on Wednesday remained unclear because of the ban on entering it – which excluded even Palestinian ambulances which spent the day vainly trying to get in to treat victims. The Israeli army said the injured were treated by their own military doctors, although Palestinians claimed that some were left to bleed.

"They told us we needed a permit to enter," said Mohammed Sabra, 31, a Red Crescent ambulanceman from the West Bank town of Salfit who waited all day to try to get in. "But since when did an ambulance need a permit?" he asked. Telephone conversations with residents inside Beit Rima, who were placed under curfew by the Israeli military, depicted a terrifying raid. "There were broken electricity pylons, cars smashed up by tanks and at least one body is lying in the olive orchards," said Dr Bassem Rimawi, who said he was asked by the Israeli army to help treat people with bullet wounds. Assam Barghouti, a lawyer, said two officers in the Palestinian security forces were arrested, and he accused the Israelis of targeting people trying to flee to safety. "They are simply trying to repress us," he said.

The press was offered only briefings from government spin doctors and Israeli army officers, such as Colonel Yair Golan, who reassured reporters that only six people had been killed, all of whom were adults who had either shot at the intruding soldiers or approached them with guns.

He explained the ban on ambulances by arguing that it would have been "irresponsible" to allow civilians into a conflict zone – a remark which will surprise the residents of much of the West Bank and Gaza Strip where hundreds of civilians have been killed by Israeli troops since the conflict began 13 months ago.

The issue now is what the United States does next to bring Mr Sharon into line, before he further stirs up the Arab and Muslim world.

Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, weighed in anew yesterday by saying "it would be appropriate for the Israeli government immediately to withdraw from the Area A villages that they have occupied". But words from America do not seem to be effective. It is possible that yesterday's events – which also saw four Palestinians killed in Tulkarm – were a last bloody flourish before a pull-back. But the Palestinian paramilitaries seem likely to respond, locking the region back into more violence.