Israeli helicopter kills Palestinian leader

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An Israeli combat helicopter rocketed a pickup truck full of Palestinian commanders, killing one and critically wounding another in what the army said was a new policy of targeting ringleaders behind the clashes.

An Israeli combat helicopter rocketed a pickup truck full of Palestinian commanders, killing one and critically wounding another in what the army said was a new policy of targeting ringleaders behind the clashes.

Two passersby were killed and 11 others injured. Israeli troops also shot dead a 14-year-old in Gaza.

Palestinians promised a tough response to the helicopter attack in this well-to-do Christian suburb of Bethlehem, coming as US President Clinton was set to convene yet another round of talks aimed at resuscitating the peace negotiations.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has until now resisted pressure from the army to take preemptive activity targeting organizers, fearing it would scuttle any chances for reviving the peace.

"This morning's action is part of a long-term initiated activity targeting the ringleaders of the intensification of the violence," the army said in a statement. The word "initiated" was key, signaling a switch from a defensive to an offensive posture.

The dead man was identified by the army and by hospital officials as Hussein Abayat, prominent among the plainclothes Palestinian gunmen who have led the most recent uprising against the continued Israeli presence in parts of the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

The army said Abayat had planned and carried out three different ambushes in the Bethlehem-Jerusalem area which killed three soldiers and seriously injured a policeman.

"The attack was carried out after soldiers spotted an armed cell occupying positions which had been used to launch shooting attacks," the army said.

Palestinian officials said Abayat had been on patrol, in a pickup truck with civilian plates.

"He was a soldier for the Palestinian Authority," said Fadi Salahat, whose uncle Khaled - another commander in Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction - was critically wounded in the attack. "He was patrolling the area to protect the people of Bethlehem and Beit Sahour from Israeli occupiers."

Salahat, who is also a senior intelligence officer, was kept under close guard in Beit Sahour hospital. Witnesses said four helicopters closed in on the green pickup truck, two fired rockets, and then all four retreated.

There were three Fatah men in the Mitsubishi truck, and another two in a small Fiat Uno traveling behind. The other three men escaped with slight injuries.

Within minutes, the street - winding up an exposed hill - was filled with medics and security officials. Medics scraped scorched flesh off the pavement. The truck was a mangle of twisted, blackened metal. Flies hovered over patches of blood.

"The people I saw, they were pieces of meat on the ground, they did not look like human beings," said Mahmoud Joban who witnessed the attack from his balcony.

Two passersby, both women, were also killed in the attack and one other woman was critically wounded. Another 10 people had moderate to light wounds.

Almost 180 people have been killed in the six weeks of clashes, the vast majority of them Palestinians - but most of those have come from the rank and file.

An Israeli decision to target people close to the Palestinian leadership could escalate the conflict and sour Clinton's efforts to get the sides talking again.

Palestinian leaders promised retaliation.

"This is an assassination against one the of Fatah leaders in Bethlehem district," said Marwan Barghouti, who heads Fatah in the West Bank and who Israel says is organizing the violence. "I think this will push Fatah for a reaction."

It has not been unusual for the Israeli army to launch helicopter gunship attacks on Palestinian targets in retaliation for shooting attacks, but until now the targets have mainly been infrastructure sites - military headquarters and police stations - and have been preceded by warnings to evacuate.

There was no warning in this case, and the civilians in the area were clearly visible.

Beit Sahour has been used as a base for Palestinian gunmen aiming their attacks at an Israeli army camp in an Israeli-controlled area of the West Bank. Another Christian town, Beit Jalla, has been used to launch attacks on Gilo, a middle-class Jewish neighborhood in a disputed area of Jerusalem.

Those battles have been marked until now by relatively low casualties - mostly residents treated for shock - setting them aside from a conflict otherwise characterized by much bloodshed.

Arafat arrived in Washington early today. In his talks with Clinton, he is expected to press for sending an international force to the West Bank and Gaza to protect his people from Israeli troops.

Barak, who meets Clinton on Sunday, has rejected any such force.

UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson started a week-long mission to the Middle East Thursday, after the commission passed a resolution condemning Israel for excessive use of force against the Palestinians. She said she would look into that and also examine extremist statements of incitement and hatred.

Reflecting concerns about continuing unrest, the military banned, then allowed an annual prayer gathering today at Rachel's Tomb, a Jewish holy site in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. The site, where Jews believe the biblical Rachel was buried, has been the scene of riots and exchanges of gunfire and has been closed to Jewish worshippers since the current wave of violence erupted.

Leaders of Jewish settlers in the West Bank charged that Barak is keeping Jews away from all the holy sites there and is not providing security.

A number of settlers succeeded in infiltrating Rachel's Tomb before dawn, but were evacuated by the army. Troops kept about a hundred from crossing the border between Jerusalem and Bethlehem for several hours today, and then escorted them inside for a short prayer service.

The settlers, positioned at the Bethlehem-Jerusalem crossing, tried to stop an ambulance evacuating wounded from the Beit Sahour clash to a Jerusalem hospital. They surrounded the vehicle and banged on it, until it managed to pull away.