The tanks roll into Bethlehem, and the Middle East erupts

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The Independent Online

Dr Ahmed Soubeih knew that setting foot into the silent, sun-lit street outside his hospital yesterday was highly dangerous. The Israeli army had already slaughtered more than 30 Palestinians across the occupied territories in the past 12 hours, making it the bloodiest day of the intifada.

There were snipers with high-powered rifles hidden in a building not far from his front door, part of an Israeli force that swept into Bethlehem and its surrounding Arab villages before dawn. His neighbourhood was under an Israeli-imposed curfew, as was much of the urban sprawl around Bethlehem, reoccupied by Israel again even though the land was placed under Palestinian rule by the Oslo peace accords.

A 1,000lb bomb dropped by an F-16 jet had flattened a local government office during a terrifying night of attacks. Helicopters had been spraying streets with fire from their heavy-calibre machine guns, picking off several of the naive and ragged youths unlucky enough to be in Yasser Arafat's farcical national security forces. An Israeli spy drone circled overhead.

Tanks were near by, and had been shunting Palestinian Red Crescent ambulances off the streets, brazenly contemptuous of the protection afforded to rescue workers under the Geneva Conventions. And ­ with Israeli troops inside or stationed around two nearby refugee camps, Aida and Deheisheh ­ it was clear that fighting could explode at any second.

So Dr Soubeih took particular care before setting off in his BMW to drive through the empty streets of Bethlehem's suburbs to a neighbouring Palestinian hospital to collect food and medicine for his patients. "He called the Israeli army and asked them if he could go," said his nephew, Ra'ed Isbaih. "They took details of his car, told him to wear a white shirt and no jacket, and to drive slowly."

Dr Soubeih set off at around noon. According to Mr Isbaih, a sniper fired in his direction. So he called the Israeli military again and was reassured that this time it would be safe to drive. A few minutes later, a volley of bullets from a heavy machine-gun mounted on an Israeli Merkava tank removed his face. In one brutal moment, his six children lost a father; his patients lost a doctor, who by local repute, was caring and compassionate; and the Palestinians lost another medical worker, the fourth to be killed by the Israelis since Monday.

Dr Soubeih, 36, director and founder of the 20-bed Yamama Hospital in al-Khadr, had been on his way to the larger al-Hussain hospital, on the edge of Bethlehem. "He was a very decent person, and a very hard worker," said Dr Peter Qumri, director of the al-Hussain Hospital, looking red-eyed after a sleepless night caring for the wounded after Israel's latest invasion, which killed eight people. "I spoke to him only yesterday for two hours about preparing for the emergency and getting medical supplies."

After initially saying they had no knowledge of the incident, the Israel armed forces last night said they "regretted" the death. Perhaps they were having trouble keeping track. By last night they had killed at least 38 Palestinians, including two children, a young woman and a general, in the worst day of the 17-month intifada.

In Bethlehem there was no hint Dr Soubieh had any connection with the "terrorists" Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, has vowed to root out.

If this is Mr Sharon's strategy ­ as opposed to deliberately fanning Palestinian violence to a level that will allow him eventually to eradicate their claim to nationhood ­ then it is not working. More than 100 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli army in the past week and hundreds more have been injured. This has not stopped the flow of suicide missions.

Last night, the Israeli security forces said they intercepted another suicide bomber trying to penetrate north Jerusalem ­ the third in two days. Had any of them succeeded, the Israeli death toll in the past week of 36 would have been much higher. Six Israelis were killed yesterday, including five teenagers shot by a gunman in a Jewish settlement.

And it did not stop 19-year-old Mohammed Farhat from cutting through a wire fence surrounding the Jewish settlement of Atzmona in the Gaza Strip, and opening fire on a hall full of Israeli teenagers. By the time he was shot dead by Israeli security forces he had emptied his Kalashnikov and lobbed in hand grenades, killing five 18-year-olds and injuring 20 more.

That attack, late on Thursday, was followed by still more horror. At least 16 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza village of Kouza as the Israeli army lashed out. The victims included Major-General Ahmed Mefraj, one of the senior Palestinian security officials with whom Israel used to co-operate.

Israel has raised the temperature by storming into refugee camps ­ including Tulkarm, where Israeli troops were facing off scores of gunmen last night. It is doubtful whether the arrival of Anthony Zinni, the US Marines general sent by America to end this nightmare, will make any difference.

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