Israel steps up West Bank pressure

Government debates next moves as army moves into 3 more cities

October 20, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israeli officials argued yesterday about what measures to take next against Palestinians even as the Israeli army moved military forces into more Palestinian cities. By nightfall, soldiers controlled parts of six West Bank towns and used tanks to impose curfews.

The show of strength was intended to force Palestinian officials to arrest and extradite the killers of Cabinet Minister Rehavim Zeevi, who was assassinated Wednesday. But Israelis and Palestinians received contradictory messages about what might come next.

A poll published yesterday by the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth found that a majority of Israelis polled favored a crackdown on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. But a majority also continued to support negotiating a peace deal with him. The poll indicated that more than 60 percent of the Israeli public backs eventual creation of a Palestinian state.

"Israelis do not want to lose hope of an agreement with the Palestinians, and also do not want to lose the hope of a victory over terrorism," the pollster concluded.

Israeli government officials staunchly denied as recently as last week any intention of permanently seizing Palestinian territory. Asked yesterday if that policy had changed, government spokesman Dan Seaman said: "It all depends on the Palestinians." Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit told state radio yesterday that the government had no intention of harming Arafat or toppling the Palestinian Authority.

The left-of-center Labor Party threatened yesterday to pull out of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government and to force new elections if the army launched an all-out assault on the Palestinians. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, a Labor Party leader, said he still wants to negotiate with Arafat and restart a cease-fire.

"I believe that all the time we have to combine measures of self-defense with incessant diplomatic initiatives," Peres told state radio yesterday. "One without the other will harm us."

A decision by Israel to re-occupy all of the West Bank would almost certainly be condemned by the United States. It would also undo agreements Israeli and Palestinian leaders signed seven years ago giving Palestinians control over many West Bank cities.

Peres has repeatedly warned against any move, military or political, to force Arafat from power. He has warned that the radical Islamic group Hamas, which has carried out suicide bombings against Israel, would take Arafat's place.

An official close to Sharon said yesterday that Israel had no plans to assassinate or oust Arafat but that the prime minister would not be sorry to see him go. Israeli officials say they believe that Arafat's West Bank security chief, Jabril Rajoub, could take over and stabilize the area.

Palestinian officials called for outside help yesterday. Nabil Abu Rdeineh, a spokesman for Arafat, pleaded in a statement for U.S. intervention to "put an end to this continuous Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people."

Israeli tanks entered Beit Jala and Beit Sahour and pushed deep into Bethlehem. Two tanks parked outside the Paradise Hotel, which soldiers seized, less than a mile from the city's Manger Square. Israeli forces moved into Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin on Thursday.

Palestinians reported one person dead and 16 wounded in Bethlehem. A Palestinian gunman was reported killed in Ramallah, and a 13-year-old boy died when he picked up a tank shell in the Gaza Strip, which exploded in his hands.

The Israelis reported that three soldiers were shot by Palestinian snipers outside Rachel's Tomb, at the northern entrance to Bethlehem. Army commanders said they sent troops into Bethlehem to ensure that gunmen there did not fire on troops in Beit Jala.

Thousands of Palestinian militants meanwhile gathered in Manger Square to bury three people killed Thursday when their car exploded on a road between Bethlehem and Beit Sahour. Among the dead was Atef Abayat, the Bethlehem commander of the Aqsa Martyr's Brigade, a militia accused of killing of five Israelis.

Palestinians accused Israeli operatives of booby-trapping Abayat's car. Israeli officials said he was blown up by a bomb he was preparing himself.

His funeral procession included Palestinians firing guns into the air for 15 minutes, out of sight but within earshot of Israeli soldiers in two tanks less than a mile away.

Israel says it will leave the Palestinian areas once it is assured that violence, such as Thursday night's firing from Beit Jala on the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, ends. Rajoub said last night that he would ensure that the shooting stopped if the tanks pulled out.

But less than an hour after he issued his statement, Palestinians opened fire on the Jewish settlements in Hebron. The army had pulled out of hilltop towns surrounding Hebron less than a week ago with assurances that the shooting would end. Israeli officials had vowed to return should one more shot be fired.

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