Israeli troops leave holy city

Tanks pull out from Bethlehem despite fatal attacks

October 29, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israel's army began pulling out of Bethlehem last night, ending a 10-day siege of the biblical Palestinian city, despite terror attacks by radical militant groups earlier in the day that left five Israelis dead and scores wounded.

Palestinian security officials and an Israeli army spokesman reported that the withdrawal was completed without incident before dawn today.

Tanks and other armored vehicles were seen exiting the city about an hour after the Israeli Security Cabinet met and decided that the withdrawal could commence because a daylong cease-fire in Bethlehem had held.

The terror attacks, a shooting spree by two gunmen in Hadera that killed four women, injured 42 others and ended with the gunmen being killed by police, and a fatal shooting of an Israeli soldier, occurred in the north and were not directly related to the incursion into Bethlehem and the neighboring hilltop town of Beit Jala.

But the shootings will complicate Israel's promised withdrawal from other West Bank cities it has occupied since Cabinet Minister Rehavam Zeevi was assassinated Oct. 17 by a Palestinian gunman in East Jerusalem.

The Cabinet gave the army permission to launch undefined operations to find people connected to yesterday's attacks, which could mean a deeper incursion into the West Bank city of Jenin, where the two gunmen involved in the Hadera shooting were from.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat "has not fulfilled any of the agreements he has signed and has not made any significant arrests of militants, and as a result, we have had two terrorist attacks today," said Ranaan Gissin, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The first attack occurred about 11 a.m., when a Palestinian gunman shot army Sgt. Yaniv Levi, 22, as he sat inside his car near the entrance to a kibbutz in northern Israel. The al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades, an arm of Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for his death.

The second attack occurred during a torrential downpour about 2:45 p.m., when Israeli police said the shooters stopped their red Mitsubishi jeep in the middle of a central street in Hadera, a coastal city halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa.

Witnesses said the passenger, dressed in street clothes, got out with an M-16 assault rifle and opened fire, hitting pedestrians waiting at a bus stop and milling about in front of a library. Police said the driver also shot into the crowd.

Police officers who were nearby converged on the shooters within seconds, but not before more than three dozen people were hit by bullets and collapsed.

"They wanted to hit whomever was in the center of the town, but the detectives stopped them," said Maj. Yaakov Borovsky, the northern division police commander.

One officer shot and killed the gunman who was standing and firing from his weapon, hitting him from behind. Another officer stuck his hand in the jeep and killed the driver. Police said they found a stockpile of ammunition inside the vehicle.

The radical militant group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack and sent a video of the shooters to the Associated Press. They were identified as Yussef Swetat and Nidal al-Jabali, who were from a refugee camp in Jenin, a West Bank city from where many suicide bombers have been recruited.

Hadera is on a narrow slice of land locked in the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the West Bank to the east. Its proximity to hostile territory has made it an attractive spot for terrorists in the past.

In May, more than 60 people were injured when a car bomb exploded at the central bus station. Two suicide bombers were killed.

A small bomb detonated on a railroad track, again in May, but caused no injuries. And in June, a bomb exploded in the train station, while a train was passing by on its way to Tel Aviv. No injuries occurred in that attack either.

Arafat condemned both terror attacks yesterday and said he is doing all he can to lower the level of violence and return to the negotiating table with Israel. He blamed Israel for provoking militants by continuing its policy of targeted killings of suspected Palestinian terrorists.

Palestinian officials said their security forces have arrested more than 70 members of outlawed militant groups and have invited the United Nations to inspect jails to ensure the suspects remain behind bars.

The Palestinians say they cannot enforce their ban on militant arms of political groups and begin wholesale arrests until after the Israeli army leaves its cities. Israel says it won't leave most places until the arrests begin.

Israeli officials complain that Palestinians being arrested by Arafat's security forces are minor players in a complicated terror war and that Arafat will not go after the radical leaders because he would risk angering Palestinians, who are increasingly siding with the more militant groups.

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