Ten more dead after Israeli onslaught

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The Independent Online

Less than a day after agreeing to an American and British plan meant as the first step towards restoring calm, Israel dispatched its army into another West Bank town, leaving a trail of dead and wounded.

Israeli tanks and troops swept into Hebron early yesterday, killing nine people, six of them civilians, according to Palestinians, and injuring several dozen more.

A tenth Palestinian was killed by a sniper when he walked into a courtyard of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where Israeli armed forces have besieged several hundred Palestinians on the grounds that they included some wanted militants.

All this, only hours after Ariel Sharon's cabinet had agreed to a US-British initiative under which Yasser Arafat would be released from confinement in his compound, and allowed to travel abroad.

The Israeli forces moved into Hebron in the southern West Bank before dawn. The attack was expected but it marked another act of defiance by Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon against the US, which has repeatedly called for him to end the extensive military raids into Palestinian towns and villages.

In one incident, a missile was reportedly fired from an Israeli helicopter and hit a bungalow, killing a Palestinian gunman and four civilians. Palestinian witnesses said two other civilians who ran to the scene to help were shot dead by bullets fired from the helicopter's heavy machine-gun.

In the centre of the town, scores of Palestinian males were lined up against a wall, handcuffed and blindfolded. Several knelt on the pavement, guarded by Israeli troops, awaiting interrogation, facing the possibility of joining thousands of other Palestinians now being held in detention centres without charge.

Israel's Defence Minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said his troops arrested 17 people, several of whom were wanted, and found two suitcases packed with explosives and a car bomb primed for detonation. Israel was in "the last stages of the entire operation", he said.

Trouble had been simmering for several days in Hebron, an overwhelmingly Palestinian town of 120,000 with several tiny but militant Jewish enclaves in its midst, and a larger one on its edge. A week ago, Israel assassinated Marwan Zalloum, the commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade militia in Hebron, by firing from a helicopter into his car.

This was followed by a sudden eruption of savagery, in which Palestinians executed three suspected collaborators in the street. There was still more brutality this weekend when Hamas gunmen penetrated a nearby Jewish settlement, killing four people including a five-year-old girl.

There were doubts last night over when Israel troops surrounding Mr Arafat's compound will withdraw. They were still there yesterday and would stay until the US-UK plan had been finalised. The plan includes transferring six wanted Palestinians to a jail in the West Bank, to be guarded by British and American wardens.