Israelis retaliate for terror attacks

Helicopter gunships strike Arafat's force in West Bank, Gaza

Arab world hardens stance

March 29, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - In its first major military assault against the Palestinians, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon struck elite Palestinian security headquarters in the West Bank and Gaza with helicopter-fired rockets last night in response to a wave of terror attacks whose latest victims were two Israeli teens.

The helicopter strike came after the closing of a 22- nation Arab summit in Amman, Jordan, that saw a hardening of the Arab world's posture toward Israel, even though leaders were unable to bridge divisions in their own ranks over Iraq and Kuwait.

The escalation of violence and the outcome of the Jordan summit showed how Israel and the Arab world are being pushed further apart after years of peace efforts, leaving moderates on both sides increasingly in the shadows.

The Israeli army's chief target last night was Yasser Arafat's Force 17, the unit that protects the Palestinian leader. For weeks, the Sharon government has accused Force 17 of being behind attacks on Israelis and says this is evidence that Arafat has reverted to terrorism.

The Palestinian Red Crescent Society said one man in the West Bank town of Ramallah was killed by the gunships, and a woman was killed about the same time by gunfire from a nearby military camp. Two dozen people were wounded.

The army said its gunships struck four Force 17 posts, one in Ramallah and three in the Gaza Strip, as well as a presidential guard training camp and an armored vehicle.

Arafat's home in Gaza was damaged in the attack, but he was attending the summit in Jordan.

"Israel views the PA [Palestinian Authority] as responsible for the wave of attacks and calls on the international community to use its influence on the PA so that it will cease terrorist activities and violence, and will work to foil them as it has committed itself to doing in the agreements it has signed," Sharon's office said in a statement.

The two boys killed yesterday, Eliran Rosenberg, 16, and Naftali Landskoren, 14, were among four young Israelis killed in the six months of conflict, including a 10-month-old girl who was shot to death Monday in the West Bank city of Hebron. Israeli security forces have killed more than 100 Palestinians age 17 or younger since Sept. 29.

Rosenberg and Landskoren were part of a group of boys from Israel studying at a religious school in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Kedumim that offers special instruction and small classes for students with attention-deficit syndrome.

Because of recent violence, they have been driven to a gas station near the border, close to the town of Kfar Saba, and picked up by an armored vehicle, which took them to the settlement.

At the gas station, a young Palestinian in a leather jacket, who apparently had slipped across from the West Bank, approached the group, spoke some words of Hebrew, then detonated a bomb, killing himself and the two Israelis, and wounding several others.

The militant Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack and released a videotape showing a 20-year-old man it said was the suicide bomber. On the tape, the man said he was prepared to turn his body and bones into shrapnel.

The bomb was packed with nails, which hit the heart, liver, lungs and other organs of one of the boys who survived.

Dr. Pearl Herskovitz, mother of a 16-year-old who may lose an eye because of the bombing, said she had spoken with her son Tani about pulling out of the school because of the danger.

"He said, `Without this school, I don't have a life,'" she recalled in an interview at Rabin Medical Center near Tel Aviv.

Sharon, who won election last month on a pledge to restore security, had been under mounting pressure to respond to Palestinian attacks. Some Israelis called the rash of bombings and shootings in the past week an attempt by Palestinian militants to goad Israelis into a powerful response that would heighten anger among Arabs attending the Jordan summit.

Sharon had been expected to postpone any retaliation until after tomorrow, when Israeli Arabs plan their annual day of protest against Israeli land expropriation. But yesterday's bombing drove him to react sooner.

Sharon's predecessor, Ehud Barak, retaliated with gunship strikes after the lynching last October of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah. Rather than serving to subdue Palestinian violence, those strikes are frequently cited by Palestinians as a source of deepening bitterness. But yesterday's strikes are likely to quell, for now, the Israeli public's cries for vengeance.

The strikes came less than two hours after the burial of Rosenberg, laid to rest just before dusk at a cemetery near Tel Aviv.

As mourners paused for a final prayer before leaving, Benny Streissfeld, a friend of the youth's father, expressed the prevailing bewilderment and fear.

"This situation comes once a day, twice a day. Where is it going? It's looking bad. I don't think we can go on like this. Something has to happen."

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