Israeli army takes new tack in effort to uproot terrorism

Campaign unleashes daily raids on Palestinian cities and refugee camps

A swift, narrower approach

May 27, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Teams of shoppers jostled along Pope Paul VI Street yesterday as vendors with overflowing baskets of radishes and peaches shouted for attention and old women sat cross-legged, waving bushels of fresh mint.

There was hardly a sign that Israeli soldiers had pushed again into the heart of Bethlehem only hours before to arrest a Palestinian militant and had unleashed a barrage of bullets in this ancient marketplace.

"I felt like the Israelis were occupying us again," said Odeh Hurmiah, the 81-year-old patriarch of one of Bethlehem's largest families. "I knew they would come back. They might keep coming. This won't be the last time."

Hurmiah, who has 11 children and 50 grandchildren, stood in a shaded alley near a fruit stand and leaned hard on his cane as he recalled Saturday night's incursion.

He had been praying inside the Mosque of Omar in Manger Square when youths raced in and warned of the military push. The worshippers scattered, Hurmiah said, and he walked back to his home, down a steep hill from the marketplace.

But unlike seven weeks ago - when the Israeli army clamped a curfew on the city that lasted 39 days and laid siege to the Church of the Nativity - soldiers pulled out within hours.

Israel has begun to take a narrower approach in its campaign to demolish what it calls the "terrorist infrastructure" in Palestinian society: daily raids into refugee camps, villages and cities.

Little more than two weeks after Operation Defensive Shield, the terrorism that the sweeping West Bank incursion was intended to uproot has quickly regained its footing, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer warned yesterday.

"The rate of terror attacks is increasing, and we have reached a situation in which every day there is a suicide bomber or two," said Ben-Eliezer, noting a week with four suicide bombings and five Israeli deaths.

Israeli news commentators complain that leaders on both sides failed to quickly take advantage of a lull in attacks immediately after the operation, which prompted loud calls for reform of the Palestinian Authority and to push the peace process forward.

Now, they say, Israel is back to a familiar pattern of violence without political negotiations.

"No one," wrote columnist Gideon Levy in the influential newspaper Haaretz, "is asking the relevant questions: Why did we launch the operation if at its end we find ourselves in the same place we were in at the start? And what might be done differently?"

Levy's column added: "The vicious circle of terrorism-military operation-terrorism will never be broken. Israel continues to view the terrorist attacks as some sort of natural disaster against which nothing can be done, other than striking back with more and more assaults."

The people of Bethlehem were rebuilding and recovering from the last Israeli incursion when word came Saturday night of the latest one. Residents scrambled for home as Israeli tanks backing up troops rumbled through. Gunfire erupted, and another curfew was imposed. No injuries were reported.

The raid was aimed at arresting Bethlehem's Islamic Jihad leader, Mohammed Shehade. Tanks moved to within 200 yards of Manger Square, and troops surrounded Shehade's house on the outskirts of the city, peppering it with gunfire. He wasn't home.

By morning, the soldiers had left and people were outside in the hot sun, some dressed in their Sunday finery, others lining up at the Church of the Nativity for baptisms and christenings that had been delayed by the long standoff.

Um Ezat, 41, raised a son and two daughters on Pope Paul VI Street. During the April occupation, she said, Israeli soldiers raided her home and arrested her 28-year-old son, Kana'an, and held him for a month before releasing him a week ago. This time, the soldiers only walked by her house.

"We went inside and closed the doors," she said. "What else can we do? The Israelis have an army. It's their time now, and nobody can prevent them from coming here."

In the past few days, the Israeli army also has unleashed raids in Tulkarm and Qalqilya, where troops were still operating yesterday. Curfews were imposed in both West Bank cities.

Troops had pulled out of Tulkarm on Friday, then re-entered the city hours later. During that operation, an Israeli soldier was killed when his armored personnel carrier was ambushed by Palestinian gunmen, and a 55-year-old Palestinian was killed by Israeli soldiers in another part of the city.

Ben-Eliezer told a Cabinet meeting yesterday that the army would step up its raids on Palestinian cities in the coming days. He said numerous terrorist attacks have been thwarted, including one that could have eclipsed anything seen before in Israel.

On Friday, a bomb hidden under a tanker truck went off during refueling at the country's largest fuel depot north of Tel Aviv, but the fire was quickly extinguished, averting a potential disaster.

Early Saturday, a security guard outside a Tel Aviv dance hall killed the driver of a car filled with explosives that was speeding toward the entrance. Near the West Bank city of Jenin, Israeli security forces arrested a 16-year-old Palestinian who they said was wearing an explosive belt.

The new threats have many Israelis on edge. Yesterday, an Israeli soldier wounded a man who boarded a bus in Kfar Saba, near Tel Aviv, and raised suspicions among the passengers and driver.

Police said the man carried a handbag, paid for his fare with a large bill and did not respond to questions - trademarks of suicide bombers. The driver pulled over and evacuated the bus.

A police officer, unable to communicate with the man, who was deaf and mute and refused to leave his seat, fired a warning shot that ricocheted and hit him in the leg.

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