In Mideast, deadliest fighting yet

Israeli army sweeps 8 cities as day's toll rises to record 45

`Never get us to kneel'

Arafat seeks help from U.S.

Sharon drops call for quiet

March 09, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Israeli forces swept into this Palestinian city and neighboring hamlets yesterday, continuing a lethal campaign to eradicate terrorist strongholds as the number of dead rose to record levels.

At least 44 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier were killed in fighting throughout the Gaza Strip and West Bank, making it the single bloodiest day in the 17-month uprising. Last night, Israeli troops were fighting in eight Palestinian villages and cities.

The fiercest battles were waged in the Gaza Strip, where 27 Palestinians died, including 14 in one town, and in the northern West Bank city of Tulkarm, where 13 people were killed. Three Palestinian paramedics and a 9-year-old boy were among the dead.

Soldiers backed by tanks swept into Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour and two refugee camps just a few miles south of Jerusalem shortly after midnight, the latest in a series of Palestinian areas that troops have overtaken in the past week.

The sky was bright with flares and fires from missile strikes that pounded government buildings with such force that windows rattled in central Jerusalem. Israeli jets launched a wave of attacks last night, striking a power station in Hebron and plunging the city into darkness.

"We know Israel is led by savages," said Zahia Shakhtour, 65, a Bethlehem resident who spent the night in her closet to escape the gunfire. "Who am I going to be afraid of? The Israeli troops can stay in Bethlehem, but they will never get us to kneel."

Shakhtour, seeing the windows of her home shattered by the thunderous bomb blasts, walked to Manger Square to watch a series of funerals for fallen combatants. Gunfire echoed in the distance.

"I wasn't afraid," she said. "But our children were afraid."

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat called U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday to ask him to intervene. The United States is sending its peace envoy, Anthony C. Zinni, back to the region, but he is not expected to arrive until late next week.

But Zinni's pending arrival, coupled with renewed criticism of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by U.S. officials, is having an effect. Sharon, in a stunning reversal, announced last night that he will no longer demand seven days of quiet on the Palestinian side before resuming negotiations.

That demand has repeatedly thwarted cease-fire accords and other efforts to stop the escalating violence, and marks a major departure from Sharon's mantra of "no negotiations under fire."

It will be widely criticized by the Israeli right as a capitulation, but U.S. diplomatic sources said Zinni insisted that Sharon drop the demand in exchange for American monitors to ensure that Palestinian officials make a real effort to arrest and jail members of militant organizations.

The latest strike by Palestinian extremists came late Thursday night in the Gaza Strip in the Jewish settlement of Gush Khatif. A gunman from the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, went through a fence and entered the Atzmona Military Preparatory school, killing five students and wounding 23 others.

For 20 minutes, the gunman walked through the school, first shooting people dancing and then turning his gun on others who had their heads bowed in prayer books in another room. Next, he shot students resting on their bunk beds before he was killed by Israeli soldiers.

Yesterday afternoon, Israeli border police shot and killed a Palestinian in the Beit Hanina neighborhood of Jerusalem. The man was carrying a bomb and was trying to reach Jerusalem's downtown.

Over the past nine days, more than 120 Palestinians and 38 Israelis have been killed in the fighting, and Sharon's approval ratings have sunk. A poll published yesterday in Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper found that 72 percent of the Israelis surveyed believe that Sharon has failed to live up to their expectations.

More than 53 percent have lost confidence in the prime minister, 41 percent think he should immediately call for elections and 30 percent said he should resign.

Israel seizes arms

Israeli Army Gen. Gershon Yitzhak, commander of West Bank troops, told a news conference in Tulkarm that military operations there were successful. He said soldiers had uncovered bomb factories, seized weapons and damaged the terrorist infrastructure.

"We are trying to stop Palestinians from getting out and attacking Israelis," Yitzhak said. "In the past week, we have attacked bases of terror. We want to reach a point where they stop their terror activities. We are in a new phase of our struggle."

But Yitzhak declined to answer many questions about the fighting in Tulkarm, from which reporters have been barred for the past several days - the only exception being a handful of journalists taken in under military escort.

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