Israel tanks pull out of Palestinian cities

Withdrawal of troops coincides with arrival of U.S. peace envoy

March 15, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israel troops withdrew from the West Bank city of Ramallah and other Palestinian-controlled areas early today, a move timed to coincide with the arrival of a U.S. peace envoy whose mission is to stop the worst violence the region has experienced in decades.

U.S. officials in Washington said the White House had demanded "a complete withdrawal," fearing that the continued presence of Israeli troops in Palestinian areas would undermine efforts of its mediator, Anthony C. Zinni.

Zinni met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last night and was to convene a joint security meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials today. He is scheduled to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah.

Tanks began withdrawing from Ramallah late last night after Zinni's plane landed in Israel, following clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen that turned the city into a battle zone for the third straight evening.

"It's like a nightmare," said Doa Nakhala, 24, who has been trapped in her third-floor apartment in the Ramallah suburb of el-Bireh for three days. "The tanks come and they go."

Israeli officials said the pullback would be conducted in stages, with tanks taking up new positions around the city and outside Palestinian territory.

Troops withdrew from Ramallah and several other cities, but remained on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Last night, Israeli troops moved into a village near the West Bank city of Jenin.

Palestinian officials called the Israeli announcement "a trick" and said they would not participate in cease-fire talks until Israeli forces had fully withdrawn from all Palestinian areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

That ultimatum, coupled with more violence yesterday, upstaged Zinni's arrival and cast doubt on whether the retired Marine general can succeed in his third attempt in five months to end the conflict.

Five Palestinian gunmen were killed in street battles in Ramallah, and Israeli forces killed seven Palestinians in strikes near the West Bank city of Tulkarm.

In the Gaza Strip, three Israeli soldiers were killed when a tank struck a mine and blew up - the second time in a month that an Israeli tank has been attacked successfully.

Palestinians also battled among themselves, with militants in Bethlehem abducting two men accused of helping Israel carry out assassinations, executing them and dragging their bodies from the back of a pickup through Manger Square. Police prevented militiamen from hanging one of the bodies from the roof of the Bethlehem Peace Center.

Israel launched a sweeping campaign against the Palestinian Authority at the beginning of March after a series of deadly terror attacks by Palestinian militants. In the past two weeks, more than 170 Palestinians and 60 Israelis have been killed.

The Israeli army invaded refugee camps, bombed government buildings and rounded up hundreds of Palestinian men in a hunt for suspected terrorists.

But it was the invasion of Ramallah, the West Bank headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, that caused the greatest international concern. Troops backed by 150 tanks slowly moved toward the city's center, camping in the main square yesterday morning and spraying streets with gunfire.

For the first time in the conflict, Palestinian security forces directly under Arafat's control participated in the fighting, which previously had been waged largely by militant factions.

Israeli Col. Yair Golan, a commander of West Bank forces, said Israel's goal was to "to hit the terrorist infrastructure" and "let the Palestinian Authority know that it's moving toward the brink." Officials said they found bomb factories, missiles and other weapons, and arrested dozens of suspected terrorists.

But many gunmen and militant leaders escaped. Even Israel's defense minister has questioned the effectiveness of the 14-day operation.

In public remarks, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said that he wanted to wage war against the Palestinians to force them to negotiate. In a statement released last night, he expressed "satisfaction over the results of the operation," saying he hoped it would "aid the diplomatic effort to secure a complete cease-fire."

But in Ramallah, the army created a city of ruins. Troops and armored vehicles dug up streets and formed barriers with piles of asphalt. Tanks rolled over cars, knocked down street signs and tore through buildings.

Windows were shattered and buildings pockmarked by bullets. Yesterday, hours before the withdrawal was announced, the army pressed into Manara Square. Power was knocked out in a large part of the city, and water and sewage spilled into downtown streets.

The Israeli army used the hours before Zinni's arrival to complete its offensive. Soldiers who moved into the western section of Bethlehem and a refugee camp earlier in the week launched a new offensive. Tanks moved within 200 yards of Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, and fierce fighting erupted for hours.

Bullets pierced hospital and maternity wards, but it was not clear who was responsible. At Holy Family Hospital, an Israeli tank shell punched a hole in a church and shrapnel scarred a statue of the Virgin Mary. A child was born in the maternity ward as fighting erupted, and staff members said the mother was quickly wheeled into a windowless room to avoid being hit by a stray bullet.

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