Israeli army tightens grip on Jenin

Troops conduct search for terrorist cell behind Monday suicide attack

October 26, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

JERUSALEM - Israeli forces tightened their grip on the West Bank city of Jenin again yesterday.

Hundreds of soldiers supported by scores of tanks and other armored vehicles swept into the city, in what Israel called a hunt for a terrorist cell behind a suicide attack on a bus that killed 16 people Monday.

The incursion, the biggest since the summer, came as a Bush administration envoy here tried for a third day to promote a "road map" toward peace.

The incursion also came a few hours after Israeli and Palestinian officials met for talks on improving security and easing Israeli restrictions in some areas. The Israeli army withdrew yesterday from most Palestinian areas of the divided city of Hebron, retaining only the strategic heights, the army said.

Palestinian hospital officials in Jenin reported that two youths were shot and seriously wounded in the early hours of the raid. The Israeli army reported two exchanges of fire and no Israeli casualties. It said its soldiers had shot and wounded three men, all armed. Soldiers seized at least 40 homes.

Israeli forces eased out of Jenin late last week, seeking to isolate it with a ring of troops and a ditch. Israeli officials said that Israel's reward for this step was the suicide attack and that the cell, from the Islamic Jihad, was planning more such violence. In the attack Monday, two men drove a bomb-laden sport utility vehicle into a bus.

"Out of some 250,000 people in the Jenin area, we are looking for a cell of no more than 20 terrorists who are bringing misery to everyone," said a senior army commander.

Palestinians say the Israeli occupation of cities like Jenin, and the accompanying civilian deaths, provoke such attacks. Palestinian officials accused Israel of seeking to sabotage the Bush administration road map, which was presented by Assistant Secretary of State William J. Burns. Both sides have been cool to the proposal.

Burns met again with Palestinian officials yesterday and is scheduled to depart today to visit Persian Gulf states.

Jenin has been under curfew most days since Israeli forces first seized it in June, as part of a new West Bank offensive started after a suicide bombing in Jerusalem on June 18.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer called Jenin "the capital of terror," a title that Israeli officials have also applied to Nablus, to the south. He said that Israel wanted to loosen restrictions on Palestinians but could not "when you need to defend your home from suicide bombers and car bombs."

Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, told reporters that the incursion was "a continuation of the crimes committed by troops and settlers against our people and our children."

Settlers continued to clash yesterday with Palestinians in the West Bank, as the olive harvest brought Palestinians out of their villages and into their orchards.

The suicide attack Monday has at least temporarily subdued tensions between the army and settlers. Last weekend, soldiers seeking to remove a settlement outpost defined by Israel as illegal scuffled repeatedly with young settlers defending it. The clashes produced images of Israeli resistance to authority and even lawlessness in the territories, which concerned many government ministers.

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