Israeli troops move into Palestinian section of Hebron

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The Independent Online

Israeli troops and tanks moved into the Palestinian­controlled section of the West Bank city of Hebron at daybreak Friday, killing at least six Palestinians, after Israel all but called off cease­fire efforts.

The move came hours after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon responded angrily to a string of Palestinian attacks, including a gunfire assault on a bus station in Israel's north on Thursday, in which a Palestinian disguised as an Israeli soldier killed three Israelis.

Charging that the Palestinians had sabotaged all truce efforts, Sharon said, "From now on we will count only on ourselves." He said his Cabinet had authorized the military to take whatever steps were necessary to protect Israeli citizens.

Early Friday, Israeli forces took control of the Abu Sneineh and Haret a­Sheikh neighborhoods overlooking the three Israeli enclaves in the divided city. Israel controls about 20 percent of Hebron, guarding about 500 settlers living among 130,000 Palestinians.

At least five Palestinians were killed and 12 wounded in exchanges of gunfire during the incursion. Advancing tanks fired machine guns and shells, witnesses said.

The Israeli military said the incursion was a response to constant Palestinian gunfire from hilltops at Jewish enclaves below, including attacks on crowds of Jews visiting the city to celebrate a Jewish holiday.

Abbas Zaki, a Palestinian leader in Hebron, denounced the Israeli incursion. "It is a new crime by the Sharon government," he said. "We will fight against this incursion, and we are calling on the world to provide international protection for the Palestinian people."

The renewed violence followed an apparently fruitless meeting on Thursday between high­level officials from the two sides, aimed at implementing a truce announced on September 26 after intense US pressure to cool down the conflict before it interferes with efforts to build a coalition to fight international terrorism.

In harsh words aimed at the United States, Sharon said, "do not try to placate the Arabs at Israel's expense. We are not Czechoslovakia," a reference to a 1938 decision by Britain and France to allow Nazi Germany to take over part of the eastern European country in exchange for a promise of peace that was quickly broken.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met with two top Palestinian negotiators, Parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia and Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat, but the session degenerated into mutual accusations of truce violations, both sides said.

Erekat charged that Israel has not carried out its part – removing roadblocks in the West Bank and Gaza and pulling troops back from Palestinian cities and towns. "So far the Israelis haven't implemented anything," he said.

Peres complained about Palestinian gunfire incidents since the truce was declared. "They must do everything they can to stop violence and live up to their commitments," Peres said later.

There are almost daily clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in Hebron, a tense spot in the West Bank. Palestinians fire at settlers and soldiers, and settlers attack Palestinians and destroy property.

On Wednesday and Thursday, Palestinians fired at Israelis visiting the city and its disputed holy site, the traditional burial cave of the biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. On Wednesday, two women were wounded.

After the incursion, hundreds of Palestinians, shouting and wailing, gathered at the Hebron hospital, where the dead and wounded Palestinians were taken.

In a statement, the Israeli military said forces were sent into Palestinian areas because of constant gunfire at the settlers and the attacks on the visitors. The statement said the soldiers would remain in Palestinian areas "for a limited time" until their mission is completed.

On August 23, the Israeli army took over the same hilltop after repeated gunfire at the Jewish enclaves, destroyed two buildings Israel said were used by Palestinian gunmen and pulled out shortly afterward. The settlers, among the most militant in the West Bank, have demanded that the military keep control of the hill to stop the gunfire.