Palestinian rockets found, Israel says

Army points to proof of powerful new arms

gunmen kill 4 Israelis

February 07, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - The Israeli army said it seized rockets yesterday at a West Bank checkpoint, confirming that Palestinians are acquiring more powerful weapons that could strike Israeli cities.

Army officers said the discovery of the rockets at a checkpoint between Nablus and Jenin is the first proof that new weapons are being built and prepared for use. Israeli officials have expressed concern that extremist groups have developed a missile more powerful and accurate than versions being used in the Gaza Strip.

"We are witnessing increasing efforts by terror organizations to move missiles in order to hit Israelis cities," Brig. Gen. Gershon Yitzhak, commander of the West Bank forces, said yesterday. "These weapons are not defensive or designed to enforce order. They are only to harm Israeli citizens."

Yitzhak said Palestinians planned to fire the rockets at the northern Israeli city of Afula and at communities in the Jezreel valley.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has warned the Palestinian Authority that if the rockets are fired into Israel, there will be a "total change" in the army's tactics.

Israeli soldiers found the eight short-range Kassam rockets and launchers by chance, hidden under sacks of fruit on the back of a truck headed from Nablus to Jenin, the army said.

Senior Palestinian officials declined to comment on news of the seizure, but a political leader in Jenin denied the army's account.

"There were no missiles being transported," said Jenin's deputy governor, Haidar Rsheid. "This is another Israeli fabrication. Next they will say we are transporting SAM missiles."

The militant Islamic group Hamas has publicly acknowledged possessing the missiles, and another, the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, has released video on Lebanese television showing similar weapons being fired in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli officials said Palestinians developed the missiles in Gaza, apparently by copying weapons smuggled from Lebanon.

Meanwhile, Palestinian gunmen took hostages last night at a Jewish settlement in the Jordan valley and killed an Israeli mother, two daughters and a fourth person, before one gunman was killed by Israeli commandos, Israeli radio reported.

The gunmen shot their way into Hamra and took over a house. Israeli troops raided the house and searched the settlement for more gunmen, Israeli television reported. Soldiers ordered residents to lock themselves in their homes while the search was under way.

Earlier in the day, an Israeli bus driver prevented a bombing on a bus from Jerusalem to the nearby West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim, authorities said.

Police said a 22-year-old Hamas operative from Nablus boarded the bus at Jerusalem's French Hill interchange, wearing a heavy coat - drawing attention in warm weather - and kept his right hand in a pocket. The man sat in the back of the nearly full bus.

About halfway to Maale Adumim, the man walked toward the driver, who noticed wires sticking out of the man's lapel and called for a passenger, also a bus employee, to grab the man's arms.

The two struggled as the bus sped to a checkpoint, where passengers were able to get off and police handcuffed the Palestinian, who had tumbled out. Authorities said the man was wearing a bomb on his belt.

In the Gaza Strip, Palestinian police said Israeli soldiers shot and killed a 13-year-old boy in Rafah, near the Egyptian border.

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