Israeli bulldozer destroys wall in Hebron HQ

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An Israeli army bulldozer began destroying a side wall in the besieged Hebron Palestinian headquarters today, the fourth day of a siege, as the Israelis demanded the surrender of gunmen inside.

An Israeli army bulldozer began destroying a side wall in the besieged Hebron Palestinian headquarters today, the fourth day of a siege, as the Israelis demanded the surrender of gunmen inside.

With Israeli troops controlling seven of the eight main West Bank cities and towns, the Palestinian leadership issued a statement on Friday condemning the Israeli incursions into Palestinian areas as "an attempt to sabotage peace efforts."

The statement, quoted by the Palestinian Wafa news agency, appealed to the world leaders attending the G–8 summit in Canada to "send observers to the region to ensure implementation of a cease–fire."

Also, soldiers and border police arrested six Palestinians in villages near Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron overnight, the military said Friday, describing them as "suspected in terror activity."

At the hilltop Hebron headquarters, where the regional Palestinian administration is housed, news pictures and TV video showed the bulldozer knocking the wall at the ground level of the four–story fortress–like building, and tanks were firing at the building. Explosions were heard every few minutes at the compound.

However, the Israeli military denied that a bulldozer was at the compound.

A day earlier, Israeli helicopters fired four missiles at the four–story structure. Soldiers outside warned that they would go in and extract the gunmen if they did not give themselves up.

"I think they have to surrender and give up," Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said on Friday. "There is no sense for them to fight."

The siege was reminiscent of a 38–day standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem that ended in early May, after Palestinian gunmen ran into the site that marks the traditional birthplace of Jesus ahead of invading Israeli forces on April 2.

Israeli tanks and troops encircled the church, and after tense negotiations involving the United States, Europe and the Vatican, an agreement was worked out under which 13 gunmen were deported to Cyprus and Europe, and 26 others were sent to Palestinian–controlled Gaza.

The difference between the Bethlehem standoff and the Hebron siege was the setting. While the Israelis hesitated to open fire on the 4th–century Bethlehem church, one of Christianity's holiest sites, they feel no such restraints in Hebron, where about 15 Palestinians wanted by Israel as terrorism suspects are holed up inside the squat, plain four–story building first used by the British army and handed over, in turn, to Jordan, Israel and then the Palestinians.

"We know that a few wanted persons are inside and we intend to apprehend them," army spokesman Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey told Israel Army Radio. "We prefer to do it without a battle, but if it proves necessary, there will be one."

Retaliating for two Palestinian suicide bomb attacks that killed 26 Israelis in Jerusalem last week, Israeli forces took control of Palestinian cities and towns, including Hebron, declaring curfews that confined more than 700,000 people to their homes.

In the West Bank town of Qalqiliya on Thursday, Israeli soldiers opened fire on a group of children who were outside despite the curfew, wounding three, including a 9–year–old boy who was shot in the head and was in critical condition. The Israeli military admitted that the soldiers "acted improperly."

The incident was apparently a tragic misunderstanding. Palestinian high school seniors are taking standardized final exams this week, and in many places the Israeli military is lifting the curfew to allow them to get to their schools. Civil Administration spokesman Maj. Peter Lerner confirmed that the intention was to lift the curfew for students in Qalqiliya.

Palestinian officials said people saw the students outside and thought the Israelis had eased the curfew temporarily to allow them to buy supplies, and many went out into the street. There have been several such incidents since Israel took control of the towns.

The curfews have disrupted the final exams, which determine who will get high school diplomas and go on to universities. Palestinian Education Minister Nabil Abu Homos said half of the 29,000 students in the West Bank missed their tests on Thursday.

While furious at the Israelis over their severe measures, Palestinians also directed anger at U.S. President George W. Bush.

After calling for replacement of the Palestinian leadership in a speech Monday, Bush followed by refusing to rule out U.S. military action against the Palestinians and threatening to cut off aid.

At the G–8 summit, Bush was asked whether his doctrine on terrorism, which leaves open the possibility of U.S. military action against states supporting terrorists, applied to Arafat. "I'm never ruling out military. All options are available," he said, but added, "the tool I'm using is diplomatic pressure..."

Lumping Arafat with the likes of the Afghan leadership that protected terror mastermind Osama bin Laden is "dangerous," said West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub. "The Palestinian Authority is not the Taliban movement."

Palestinians also expressed displeasure at indications from Washington that if U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell visits the region, he might not meet with Arafat.