Israel mounts major offensive

Over 20,000 troops, 150 tanks invade West Bank and Gaza

Biggest since Lebanon in '82

32 Palestinians, 7 Israelis are killed

U.S. envoy Zinni due

March 13, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Israel's army launched its largest military operation in two decades yesterday, sending 150 tanks streaming into the West Bank city of Ramallah and invading the largest refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.

As of last night, Israeli troops had killed 32 Palestinians during yesterday's operation, including 18 in the Jabaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip and six in Ramallah. Palestinian officials said many civilians were among the dead.

"It's absolutely terrible," said Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, head of a medical relief agency in Ramallah. "The entire city is occupied. Anyone who moves is shot, and there is a complete curfew everywhere."

More than 20,000 Israeli soldiers took part in the operation, the largest since Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982.

Employing a new tactic, gunmen disguised as Israeli soldiers attacked a line of vehicles in northern Israel, killing six Israelis. An Israeli soldier was killed during a firefight with two of the gunmen, who also died.

The attack occurred less than two miles from the Lebanese border, but the army ruled out a cross-border strike by Hezbollah guerrillas. The Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group aligned with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility.

The new violence comes two days before U.S. peace envoy Anthony C. Zinni is to arrive to discuss a cease-fire. But each day brings new attacks, more casualties and louder calls for revenge.

The conflict has taken on a new character since it was announced that Zinni would return. Israel has endured a wave of terror attacks that has claimed scores of victims; Palestinian cities and refugee camps have been taken over by an invading army.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had made several concessions before Zinni's arrival, agreeing to negotiate under fire and releasing Arafat from virtual house arrest in Ramallah.

But hours after giving Arafat a reprieve, Sharon sent troops back into Ramallah, making the Palestinian leader a prisoner again.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged both sides to stop the violence. He called the Palestinians' campaign of targeting Israeli civilians "morally repugnant," but for the first time said yesterday that Israel "must end the illegal occupation" of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Political commentators said both sides are posturing ahead of Zinni's visit. Palestinian militants are trying to upset any potential peace plan, and Israeli officials want to push their offensive before Zinni demands a withdrawal.

"Both Israel and the Palestinians want to chalk up as many achievements as they can before Zinni's arrival so they can come to meetings with as many assets as possible in their pockets," the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot editorialized. "The idea is that if the mission fails, which is a likely scenario, the blame for its failure should be cast on the other side."

Col. Gal Hirsch, chief of operations for the Israeli army's Central Command, said the fight was a continuation of Israel's "fight for its independence. ... In the past weeks, we have been under massive terror attacks that are unprecedented. We couldn't stand it anymore, so we decided to act.

"This is a question of living or dying," Hirsch said. "So, we invade because we want to live."

The current campaign began March 1 and has involved the invasion of Palestinian refugee camps and cities, house-to-house searches for terror suspects and the rounding up of hundreds of men for security checks.

Ramallah is the latest city to be overrun and by far the most important. It is the nerve center of the Palestinian Authority and the commercial and government hub of the West Bank. Its 200,000 residents are considered well-off, more modern and less radicalized than those in other Palestinian towns.

Israeli troops have occupied parts of Ramallah before, parking tanks within 100 yards of Arafat's compound, but never had they penetrated so deep into the city, 12 miles north of Jerusalem.

Soldiers invaded from four directions, with tanks backed by helicopters spraying bullets to clear the way. Roads were torn up, electricity knocked out and water lines severed. Residents stayed in their homes to avoid gunfire that rippled through the night.

Tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled along darkened streets as Palestinian gunmen darted from building to building, raising assault rifles above their heads to fire quick bursts.

A group of photographers and television crews on a hotel rooftop overlooking the Amari refugee camp came under machine-gun fire from an Israeli tank.

In the camp, Israeli soldiers urged males ages 15 to 45 to surrender, but the Palestinian Authority broadcast pleas over loudspeakers asking people to resist. Women defiantly emerged from their homes, but the men stayed inside.

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