24 Palestinians die as Israel strikes West Bank and Gaza

17-month conflict sees one of its bloodiest days as army forces retaliate

February 21, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

QALANDIYA, West Bank - Reeling from a series of deadly ambushes against its soldiers, the Israeli army unleashed ferocious attacks yesterday and early today against the Palestinians, killing 24 in one of the bloodiest periods of the 17-month conflict.

For the second time since December, an Apache helicopter fired a missile into Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah, hitting an intelligence post yards from where Arafat sat at his desk. It shattered an office window, but Arafat was not hurt.

Twelve of the dead were Palestinian policemen. Army units swept through the West Bank and Gaza Strip, arresting suspected militants and closing roads that link Palestinian cities, isolating scores of villages and disrupting the daily routine of hundreds of thousands of people.

At the Qalandiya checkpoint, the main link between the northern West Bank and Jerusalem, edgy Israeli soldiers blocked the road with concrete barriers and fired bursts of automatic weapons fire over the head of anyone who ventured near.

Meeting in Jerusalem last night with more than 100 members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he would intensify military operations against the Palestinian Authority and militant groups.

Earlier, Sharon told reporters that he would not lead his nation into war, but last night he repeatedly told an appreciative crowd that "we are in a war being launched against us by a coalition of terror."

The prime minister said he will exert more and more pressure on Arafat to trigger an internal change in leadership. "Maybe [then] we will have somebody with whom we can negotiate."

As Sharon spoke, helicopter gunships and F-16 warplanes launched a second wave of attacks on Palestinian police and security posts in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, injuring eight. Early today Israeli forces swept into Gaza City and killed five more Palestinians

Palestinian officials condemned yesterday's onslaught, which came hours after gunmen linked to Arafat's mainstream Fatah faction shot and killed six Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, the latest in a string of attacks against the army that has left 12 soldiers dead in the past week.

At the same time, the Palestinian officials conceded that the situation has spiraled so far out of control that Arafat could not stop the violence even if he wanted. Police in Palestinian cities have been ordered to abandon their posts and go home because of the Israeli attacks.

"They're sitting ducks," said Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator and spokeswoman for the Arab League. "The police are being killed in cold blood, and at the same time, Israel wants them to arrest and imprison Palestinians."

Ashrawi said that any cease-fire orders given now, even by Arafat, who has been pinned in his Ramallah office by Israeli tanks since January, would be useless and would be ignored.

She blamed the deteriorating situation on Sharon, saying his army's attacks are undermining law and order, and allowing extremists to take over the Palestinian streets.

"I think he has gone crazy," she said. "He knows only how to shoot. He has no concept of what it takes to make peace."

Among Israelis, Sharon is coming under intense pressure from the political left and right. Both groups, for different reasons, are increasingly frustrated by what appears to be a policy of reaction that develops from attack to attack, instead of an overall plan to end the violence.

Moderate Israelis, such as Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, want Sharon to return to negotiations. Peres told the American group yesterday that the Palestinians should have been granted an independent state a decade ago.

"We cannot keep 3 1/2 million Palestinians under siege without income, oppressed, poor, densely populated, near starvation," Peres said, adding that, without some hope of a state, the Palestinians will not make peace with Israel.

Those on the far right have a different viewpoint. They are demanding early elections - voting is scheduled for next year - saying that Sharon must oust Arafat or the electorate will oust Sharon.

"From his first day in office, Sharon has done nothing but fight Palestinian terror and violence," the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz said yesterday. "The harder he strikes, the more terror we get in return. More Israelis have been killed under Sharon than in the days of any other prime minister. True, we've written about this before, but it's a fact, and it boils down to this: Sharon has no military solution for the intifada."

Sensing cracks in Israeli resolve, Palestinian militant groups have vowed in recent days to intensify their fight. The Aqsa Brigades is concentrating its attacks on soldiers and Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, avoiding strikes within Israel.

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