Israeli troops raid Ramallah

4 Palestinians are killed in bid to rescue undercover agents

January 05, 2007|By Richard Boudreaux and Maher Abukhater | Richard Boudreaux and Maher Abukhater,LOS ANGELES TIMES

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Israeli troops staged a rare incursion into this city yesterday, bulldozing cars and vegetable stands near the central square as they engaged gunmen and stone-throwing residents in a chaotic two-hour battle that left four Palestinians dead.

The raid, aimed at rescuing a team of undercover Israeli agents, was a diplomatic embarrassment for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as he headed to Egypt for talks with President Hosni Mubarak on how to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Palestinians also counted six deaths in factional fighting in the Gaza Strip. The dead included a senior security officer of the Fatah movement killed during a daylong siege of his house by a Hamas paramilitary force.

At a testy news conference in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, with Olmert at his side, Mubarak said he had used their meeting to express "indignation" over the Israeli raid and to demand that Israel and the Palestinians "refrain from all practices that would put obstacles in the road to peace."

Olmert responded: "I am sorry if innocent people were hurt." He said the raid had been meant to protect Israel from terrorist attacks but "things developed in a way that could not have been foreseen."

The two leaders, meeting for only the second time, discussed confidence-building measures that might pave the way for resuming substantive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that collapsed six years ago.

But they spent much of their joint news conference sparring. They announced no progress toward a long-expected swap of a captured Israeli soldier for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. And they failed to agree on Egypt's proposal to hold a peace summit involving Mubarak, Olmert, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The violence in Ramallah underscored the difficulty of another item on the two leaders' list of goals: extending an often-violated Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire in the Gaza Strip to the West Bank.

Abbas, who met with Olmert Dec. 23 to begin discussing steps toward full-fledged negotiations, accused Israel of making false promises of peace. He demanded $5 million for the Ramallah raid, which left dozens of cars and shops damaged and 20 Palestinians wounded.

Palestinian medical workers said the four people killed in Ramallah were men in their early 20s in a crowd throwing stones, firebombs, metal trash barrels, blocks of concrete and a refrigerator at the Israelis from rooftops. Four Israeli soldiers were reported injured in the clashes.

Israel Radio said yesterday's midafternoon undercover operation was authorized by Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, the senior commander in the West Bank, as a rare opportunity to seize wanted militant Rabe Hamed. He is the local commander of Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militia loosely affiliated with Abbas' Fatah movement. He was seriously wounded in the operation but was taken to a hospital before the Israelis could capture him.

Abbas met late yesterday with leaders of rival factions and appealed for calm.

But the killing of Col. Mohammed Ghayeb at his home in Beit Lahiya late yesterday might have made it difficult for the political leaders to rein in their militias and security forces.

Ghayeb was chief of the Preventive Security Service, a Fatah police force, in northern Gaza. The fighting with Hamas' paramilitary Executive Force killed four of his guards and wounded more than 30 people, eight of them children.

Richard Boudreaux and Maher Abukhater write for the Los Angeles Times.

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