Israeli tanks roll into Palestinian village

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The Independent Online

A Palestinian policeman was killed as Israeli tanks moved into the West Bank town of Bet Jalla early today seizing several buildings from which Israel said shots had been fired for months on a nearby Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem.

A Palestinian policeman was killed as Israeli tanks moved into the West Bank town of Bet Jalla early today seizing several buildings from which Israeil said shots had been fired for months on a nearby Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem.

It was the first time Israeli troops had remained overnight in a Palestinian town since the current fighting broke out ten months ago.

The Israeli military said the operation was cautious and limited in time, underlining the sensitivity of the move and the expectation of pressure from the Palestinians and world leaders to pull out.

The Israelis ordered the move after Palestinians opened fire on the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo yesterday, wounding a man and damaging several apartment buildings. There have been dozens of such incidents during 11 months of fighting, but this was the heaviest and longest shooting attack of them all. Two weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned that the next one would spark an incursion.

Israeli forces fired flares in the nighttime sky as bulldozers and armored personnel carriers began to move, witnesses said. Jeeps and armored personnel carriers at a staging area rolled by a stone fence in front of a building with a sign reading, "Hope School."

Speaking before the incursion, Israeli Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit said it was "inconceivable that any government would agree that people would be shot at in the capital of the country."

While Israel presented it as a straightforward case of stopping gunfire on a Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem, it was not that simple. Gilo was built on territory captured by Israel from the Arabs in the 1967 war and annexed to Jerusalem. Israel claims all of the expanded city as its capital.

However, no other country has endorsed the Israeli annexation, and Palestinians want the part Israel captured in 1967 as the capital of the state they want to create.

Further complicating the picture is the nature and location of Beit Jalla.

The mostly Christian village is next to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. There are ornate, ancient churches in Beit Jalla and sites revered by Christians around the world.

In its statement explaining the reasons for the incursion, the Israeli military said its forces were taking care "to prevent as much as possible harm to innocent civilians and foreign residents and holy sites."

As Israeli tanks took up positions around the Anglican Church, about 200 yards into Palestinian–controlled territory, Palestinian gunmen aimed sporadic fire at the Israelis. Mohammed Samur, 25, a Palestinian policeman, was killed and two other Palestinians wounded, a hospital doctor said.

Kamal Hemeid, a leader of Yasser Arafat's Fatah group in Beit Jalla, said "the resistance will not stop while there is one soldier or one Israeli tank inside the Palestinian areas."

Meanwhile, in the Gaza Strip, Israeli tanks and bulldozers moved into Palestinian–controlled territory at the Rafah refugee camp near the Egyptian border. The Israeli bulldozers tore down several structures as Palestinian gunmen fired at them, Palestinian security officials said. Seven Palestinians were wounded by Israeli gunfire, one critically, the officials said.

The Israeli military said it moved in to stop smuggling of weapons through tunnels under the border and razed empty houses used for the smuggling operations.

Rafah governor Brig. Gen. Magied al–Jaha charged that Israel was trying to reoccupy Palestinian territory. He said, "Palestinians will defend their land to their last drop of blood." Israeli incursions in Rafah are relatively frequent.

On Thursday, Israeli forces entered the Palestinian section of the divided West Bank city of Hebron and destroyed two buildings used as firing positions for gunmen aiming at Jewish houses below. The Israelis withdrew after several hours.

In a similar operation Aug. 14 in the town of Jenin, Israeli tanks and bulldozers destroyed a police headquarters building before withdrawing.

Previous Israeli incursions have drawn criticism from the Palestinians, who call them aggression, and from the United States, which has labeled them provocative.





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