Israeli army hunts killers in West Bank village raid

6 die, 11 arrested in fierce resistance

October 25, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Defying American demands that it withdraw immediately from Palestinian cities and towns, the Israeli army escalated an offensive in the West Bank yesterday by raiding a West Bank village where the assassins of a Cabinet minister were said to be hiding.

The army's early morning move into Beit Rima developed into one of the fiercest battles of the weeklong campaign, with at least six Palestinians killed and many more wounded in close combat around the village's houses and terraced olive groves before the troops pulled out early today.

Army officials said they had expected the heavy resistance in what they described as a terrorist stronghold.

Palestinians officials labeled the operation in the village northwest of Ramallah "a massacre" and charged that soldiers barred ambulances from entering, stranding wounded civilians.

Television images showed ambulances stopped at an army blockade. But Israel denied those claims.

The army said all the Palestinians killed had been armed, and it insisted the assault could have been avoided if Palestinian police had arrested the militants.

"The army is only doing this because the Palestinian leadership gives us no choice," said Brig. Gen. Gershon Yitzhak, commander of all West Bank forces. "We act according to the standards of the western world. We do not enjoy killing people."

The raid on the hillside village of about 4,000 people, most of whom are farmers, began about 2 a.m. local time (8 p.m. Tuesday EDT), a few hours after President Bush met with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and asked that Israel withdraw from the West Bank.

The Israeli security Cabinet is scheduled to meet today to discuss the situation. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday that his promised withdrawal will come only "after the mission is complete."

But political leaders acknowledged that time is quickly running out for the offensive and said that yesterday was probably Israel's last opportunity to launch a large-scale assault.

In the past week, the Israeli army has entered six Palestinian cities and three towns, killing between 35 and 40 people, including civilians and children.

The goal is to apprehend the assassins of Minister of Tourism Rehavam Zeevi and crush militant groups that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is either unwilling to arrest or unable to confront.

The assault on Beit Rima might be a signal that most of the army's goals have been reached. Israeli officials said 30 to 40 militants out of some 200 being sought were arrested and others killed.

Since the start of the Israeli offensive, armed attacks on Israeli civilians have dropped from an average of 150 a day to eight, Yitzhak said.

"This is why we have to do this," he said. "The army is supposed to be between the terrorists and the citizens. For the moment, our approach is a success."

Heavy fighting continued elsewhere in the West Bank. The Israeli army killed three Palestinians yesterday in Tulkarm and a Palestinian was killed near a hospital in Bethlehem.

Another Palestinian man was killed during a violent protest in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Dis, when he was shot in the head with a rubber-coated bullet.

Last night, Palestinian gunmen opened fire from Beit Jala against the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, prompting the Israeli army to fire artillery rounds and tank shells at the Palestinian town.

Israeli officials have repeatedly said over the past week that the army has no intention of permanently occupying Palestinian land, a pledge questioned by Palestinian officials who believe Sharon is determined to challenge the Palestinian Authority.

"Sharon has launched a comprehensive war," said Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Arafat. "His endgame is total destruction of the peace process. He is obsessed with this. Fighting will not bring peace and security. Coming back to the negotiating table is the only way to save lives."

It was difficult yesterday to verify claims by either side concerning the fighting in Beit Rima. The Israeli army declared the village a "closed military zone" and barred reporters from entering.

Palestinian officials said the soldiers arrived without warning.

"The troops just entered and shot people," said Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, president of the Palestinian Medical Relief Committee. "We are all terrorists in their eyes." He said ambulances were blocked and doctors were prevented from treating the wounded, some of whom bled to death.

Yitzhak said he told the local Palestinian police commander of the raid 30 minutes before it was launched, to provide a last chance to arrest the wanted suspects and turn them over to Israeli authorities. When that was not done, soldiers moved in.

The army general said the heaviest fighting came from members of armed militant groups, such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which has claimed responsibility for Zeevi's killing.

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