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Israeli Army Kills Islamic Militant; Palestinians Warn of War

April 03, 2001|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israel's army used a helicopter gunship to kill an Islamic militant in the Gaza Strip on Monday and fired tank shells into Bethlehem during a firefight with Palestinians there, as both sides warned of a dangerous escalation in their conflict.

Israeli officials said the strikes they are making inside Palestinian-controlled territory, once a taboo, are meant to push Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat back to the negotiating table. But Palestinians warned that they could precipitate all-out war.

"In the past week, the aggressive actions by the Israeli army have escalated," said Yasser Abed-Rabbo, the Palestinian Authority's information minister. "This escalation will lead to an open confrontation."

Speaking at a Ramallah news conference, Abed-Rabbo issued a plea to the Bush administration to restart peacemaking efforts.

But the prospect of Israelis and Palestinians resuming their talks appeared dim as the cycle of attack and counterattack intensified. In a telephone conversation with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that his country would continue hunting down gunmen because the Palestinian Authority is doing nothing to prevent attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers, state-run television reported.

Sunday night, Israeli commandos abducted five members of Force 17, one of several Palestinian security organizations, inside Palestinian-held territory. The Israelis said the men were part of a cell that has carried out attacks on Israelis and were planning another attack.

Hours later, Palestinians shot and killed a 23-year-old Israeli reservist at a post near the West Bank city of Nablus. Before he was buried, the Israelis had slain Mohammed Abdelal, a member of Islamic Jihad, who the army said had planned and participated in a string of bombing attacks against soldiers and civilians that stretched back to 1994. The army said Abdelal was planning to carry out an attack in Israel soon.

Witnesses said two helicopter gunships appeared in the sky over the southern Gazan town of Rafah shortly after noon Monday. One fired three missiles into the white pickup truck Abdelal was driving, reducing the truck to a twisted pile of charred metal and incinerating him.

Palestinians say the Israelis have assassinated 20 activists since hostilities erupted in September. Israelis call the killings "targeted strikes." The attack on Abdelal was the first such strike carried out by the Sharon government.

As thousands of mourners, many of them vowing revenge, buried Abdelal, a fierce gun battle erupted near Rachel's Tomb, a site holy to Jews and Muslims, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, just outside Jerusalem.

An army spokesman said troops guarding the tomb were fired on from a nearby refugee camp, the town of Beit Jala and the nearby Paradise Hotel in Bethlehem. Troops fired machine guns, lobbed grenades and fired tank shells at the hotel and other buildings in response. The sound of explosions echoed through Jerusalem for much of the afternoon. Palestinian sources said at least eight Palestinians were wounded.

The Israeli army said a 20-year-old soldier was killed by a Palestinian sniper in Bethlehem.

Also Monday, Jewish settlers in the divided West Bank city of Hebron continued attacks on Palestinians that began last week after the slaying of a 10-month-old girl in a Jewish enclave there that the army blamed on a Palestinian gunman.

Police said settlers used pressurized tanks filled with cooking gas to blow up three Palestinian shops and that explosives experts had found and deactivated other such tanks.

The army also reported that two mortar rounds were fired at Israeli positions in the Gaza Strip. A group calling itself the Popular Palestinian Resistance Forces in a statement faxed to news agencies said it fired five mortar rounds at a Jewish settlement in the northern Gaza Strip in revenge for the Israeli missile strikes and the slaying of Abdelal.

After dark, scattered shooting continued in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israeli officials insist that despite the escalation and Sharon's vow that he will not resume talks with the Palestinians until the attacks stop, they are still willing to negotiate a non-belligerency agreement with Arafat.

Sharon has been unable so far to make good on a promise to restore security, and he is under mounting pressure from the right to take harsher actions against the Palestinians. Jewish settlers in Hebron and their supporters are demanding that the army take over Palestinian neighborhoods from which Jewish enclaves have been fired on.

Rehavam Zeevi, the far-right minister of tourism, has recommended that Arafat's home in Gaza be bombed--after Arafat and his staff are warned to clear out.

Dore Gold, Israel's former ambassador to the United Nations and an informal advisor to Sharon, said the government's options are complicated by the fact that it has not yet completely given up on Arafat.

"Rather than wash our hands of political dialogue with the Palestinians," Gold said, Israel is trying to "move Arafat from conflict to peace--we are trying to shift Arafat from a Saddam Hussein option to an Anwar Sadat option."

But Abed-Rabbo assailed the Israelis for what he said is a propaganda war aimed at portraying Arafat as an unreconstructed terrorist directing attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians.

"The Israelis want Arafat to raise the white flag and say that the Palestinians were wrong to start this intifada," Abed-Rabbo said. "They don't want any negotiations; they don't want any peace process."

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