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Israel Seizes Land in Gaza, Pulls Out After U.S. Rebuke

Mideast: Military's brief occupation marks the first time the Jewish state has taken back territory ceded to the Palestinians under a 1993 peace accord. Powell calls the action 'excessive.'

April 18, 2001|TRACY WILKINSON and ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip — In a blaze of rocket fire, Israeli tanks, bulldozers and ground troops seized Palestinian territory Tuesday, for the first time taking back land that Israel vacated seven years ago. But under harsh U.S. condemnation, the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reversed course and 18 hours later abruptly ordered its troops to withdraw.

The capture of a small northeastern sliver of the Gaza Strip came as part of an escalating response to persistent Palestinian mortar fire at Israeli targets and followed Israeli retaliatory airstrikes against Syrian positions in Lebanon over the weekend. Syrian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas killed an Israeli soldier Saturday.

Hostilities on the two fronts have inflamed regional tensions and prompted diplomats to plead for calm.

Tuesday's actions in the Gaza Strip marked the third time in a week that Israel's military had moved in force against Palestinian-controlled territory as the Jewish state battles a 6 1/2-month-old uprising. But this was the first time Israeli troops took up positions and announced that they would remain as long as necessary to stamp out the violence.

International criticism came quickly.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in an unusually stern reprimand, called for an immediate Israeli pullout and described the incursion as "excessive and disproportionate."

"There can be no military solution to this conflict," he said, warning of broader strife. It was the Bush administration's toughest statement yet directed at Israel.

That criticism apparently stunned Israeli officials. Just hours after the top military commander in the Gaza Strip had said the new operation could take months, political officials suddenly announced that the mission had been accomplished and that the forces would withdraw overnight.

A Beit Hanoun resident said late Tuesday that he could see three bulldozers and one tank rumbling through the fields, headed north out of Gaza. And early today, the army said the withdrawal was complete.

A short time later, Palestinians blasted more mortars toward Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, repeating precisely the attacks Israel said the brief reoccupation was meant to stop.

Palestinian leaders had charged that Israel was reoccupying their self-rule territory, and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat branded the act an "unforgivable crime."

The piece of land occupied Tuesday was only 1.9 square miles, according to an Israeli army spokeswoman, out of the 140-square-mile Gaza Strip.

Israeli Brig. Gen. Yair Naveh, who commanded the Gaza operation, said the goal was to carve a security zone around parts of the Gaza Strip to put more distance between Palestinian militants who are firing mortars and the Israeli civilians whose communities have been hit. The fields around Beit Hanoun served as launching pads for the mortar attacks, as have several Palestinian police posts, the Israeli army says.

In Beit Hanoun, shocked residents earlier Tuesday buried a police officer killed in the fighting and watched from their backyards as Israeli bulldozers in the distance ripped up orange orchards and olive groves, sending dust into the hot air. Israeli tanks skirted the horizon.

Israeli troops moved into a largely uninhabited corner of the Gaza Strip, on the northern and eastern edges of Beit Hanoun, before dawn Tuesday after a fierce land, sea and air assault Monday night. Israeli forces bombarded Palestinian police and security posts in Beit Hanoun, Gaza City and at least five other towns. They then used tanks and armored personnel carriers to slice the Gaza Strip into three portions and set up roadblocks, stopping Palestinian civilians from traveling more than a few miles from their homes.

The assault came in response to a barrage of Palestinian mortar fire the night before that hit the Israeli desert town of Sderot, about three miles east of Beit Hanoun--and about five miles from Sharon's sheep ranch. No one was hurt, but it was the deepest mortar launch onto Israeli soil.

With the actions in Gaza and Lebanon, Israel under Sharon--a hawkish veteran of all of Israel's wars--has clearly embarked on a different, gloves-off strategy in confronting Arab enemies.

"There are new rules of the game," Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said Tuesday, a sentiment echoed throughout the Sharon administration. The Palestinians "have got to understand that there is a new government in town. . . . Israel and Israelis are not going to be their punching bag."

A policy of swift retaliation, targeted killings and what Israel calls preemptive strikes--with no interest in negotiations--is an approach shaped by Sharon's worldview that, as he states, life is an unending fight with the Arabs.

"The War of Independence has not ended," Sharon told the Haaretz daily newspaper over the weekend, referring to the 1948 battle when, as a fledgling state, Israel had to fend off a host of Arab armies laying siege from all sides. "1948 was just a chapter."

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