JERUSALEM - Israel stepped up its assault on Palestinian militants yesterday with a pair of confrontations less than 12 hours apart that exacted the West Bank's highest one-day death toll in more than two years. Nine Palestinian men and an 11-year-old girl were killed, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.
The violence came as Israelis were ushering in the new year - 5765, according to the Jewish calendar, which was marked by prayers, family gatherings and extremely tight security. In what has become a holiday ritual, volunteer armed guards signed up to keep watch at synagogues around the country.
The two-day holiday of Rosh Hashana began at sundown, to be followed closely by a string of Jewish holidays. The West Bank and Gaza Strip will be tightly sealed, with few Palestinians allowed to enter Israel.
The intensified military drive against armed Palestinian factions such as the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades coincided with deep political troubles for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who is doggedly trying to move ahead with his plans to withdraw Jewish settlers and Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip.
In traditional pre-holiday interviews with the Israeli news media, Sharon shrugged off death threats that have come from radical settlers and the rabbis who minister to them.
"I have never personally been afraid for my safety, and I am not afraid now either," the 76-year-old former general told the newspaper Haaretz.
Such threats have been mounting. Israeli authorities considered yesterday whether to take legal action against Rabbi Yossi Dayan, a former adherent of the outlawed Kach movement, who declared that he was ready to carry out a mystical Kabbalistic ceremony known as pulsa denura, or "lashes of fire" - in effect, putting a hex on Sharon.
Right-wing rabbis carried out such a ceremony before the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by an ultranationalist Jew, Yigal Amir, who opposed plans to cede land to the Palestinians in exchange for peace.
Dayan told Israel's Channel 2 that there are those who wish Sharon dead and that he is among them.
In the interviews, Sharon took the opportunity to state the obvious: that the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which calls for Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate territorial questions, is in tatters.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.