Israeli commandos to target militants

New anti-terror policy could blunt criticism of large-scale incursions

November 07, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - The Israeli government announced yesterday that it will embark on a campaign of guerrilla warfare using small commando units to target suspected terrorists in Palestinian cities and villages.

The tactical shift could increase the number of so-called targeted killings, but might end large-scale military invasions into the West Bank and Gaza Strip, incursions that have been sharply criticized by the United States.

It also might blunt criticism within Israel that the army's nearly three-week occupation of areas in the West Bank failed to prevent terrorism, caused unnecessary civilian casualties and appeared to be an effort to topple the Palestinian Authority led by Yasser Arafat.

Israeli officials said the new tactics will offer relief to beleaguered Palestinian civilians by allowing them to return to their normal lives as the army ends its sieges and instead hunts down militants with quick-hitting and precisely targeted raids.

"We will be more focused and less likely to cause collateral damage," said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "We are going to concentrate on select targets, using guerrilla-type tactics."

Israeli-Palestinian violence has taken many forms during the 13-month Palestinian uprising, and continued yesterday in scattered areas. Three Palestinian gunmen and an Israeli soldier were killed during a 40-minute gunbattle near Nablus that the two sides explained in markedly different accounts.

Palestinian officials alleged that the three militants, wounded during initial exchanges, were executed as they lay bleeding in a field after Israeli soldiers found that one of their own had died. A Palestinian paramedic said the bodies of the militants had close-range bullet wounds to their heads.

The Israeli army said a group of soldiers patrolling by foot and jeep had come under heavy gunfire from a group of Palestinians. One Israeli officer was wounded and airlifted to a hospital. The officials said several Palestinian ambulances were allowed to go to the scene, even as gunfire continued.

An Israeli army statement said Palestinian paramedics rushed to two of the gunmen, found them dead and left. A third gunman ran, and was shot and killed some distance away. The army said the Israeli soldier died at Tel Hashomer Hospital and that the others did not know of his death until later.

In a separate incident, two reputed Palestinian militants were killed when their car exploded in Jenin. Palestinian officials blamed Israel; the Israeli army declined to comment.

Sharon alluded to the shift toward commando raids in a speech Monday, saying that tactics would change but without offering details. Gissin said the shift was in no way an admission that past policy had failed.

"We achieved what we wanted," Gissin said, adding that the brief military occupation has "exhausted itself."

In his speech, Sharon said that during the West Bank incursions that began Oct. 18, Israeli troops had arrested 85 Palestinians with connections to terror groups, 35 of whom he described as top-level operatives.

Sharon said 79 Palestinians had been killed by army gunfire, far exceeding previous estimates even by the Palestinians, who said more than 50 had been killed. Sharon said 15 were slain in targeted killings, or assassinations. Palestinian officials have said that a dozen were noncombatants, including at least six women or children.

Palestinian officials reacted with dismay to Israel's tactical shift and said the new policy will escalate tensions.

"This will widen the gulf," said Mayor Hanna J. Nasser, whose work crews are still repairing Bethlehem after Israeli troops and tanks pulled out nine days ago, ending a lengthy incursion that sparked days of gunfire and left 22 Palestinians dead in the city.

"Instead of finding new ways to fight us, Mr. Sharon should use his influence to move the peace process ahead," Nasser said. "This will not help at all. He should be talking to the Palestinian leadership, not trying to destroy us."

The Israeli army launched its largest incursion into Palestinian cities after the assassination Oct. 17 of Israeli Cabinet Minister Rehavam Zeevi. The first stated goal was to apprehend his killers. That expanded into capturing or killing militants and trying to dismantle extremist groups.

Israeli soldiers have withdrawn from Beit Jala, Bethlehem and Qalqilya. The army delayed a pullout from Jenin on Monday night after a bomb exploded in a nearby Jewish settlement, injuring three Israelis. Israeli forces remain in the Palestinian cities of Nablus and Tulkarm, but reportedly were pulling out of Ramallah last night.

Sharon said he wants to have all Israeli troops out of Palestinian areas by the end of this week, but will only withdraw in areas that remain free of gunfire and where local Palestinian commanders can guarantee that militants won't resume shooting.

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