AL BIRAH, West Bank — In a major escalation of the Mideast conflict, Israel assassinated a senior Palestinian leader it accused of terrorism and made good early today on threats to invade a key Palestinian town south of Jerusalem.
Amid fierce gun battles, Israeli tanks backed by helicopters charged into the town of Beit Jala in one of the deepest Israeli incursions yet into Palestinian territory. Israel said it acted to stop gunmen from shooting on a Jewish neighborhood and hinted it would take up permanent positions--a first in 11 months of bloodshed.
The Palestinians had opened fire in retaliation for the slaying Monday of one of their leaders, Mustafa Zibri. He was killed when Israeli helicopters fired missiles through the windows of his office on the third floor of an apartment building in Al Birah that was full of American and Palestinian families.
Zibri, 63, was the highest-ranking Palestinian slain in years. His death took Israel's controversial policy of hunting and killing Palestinian militants to a new level.
In a rare criticism, Washington accused Israel of "inflaming an already volatile situation" with the slaying and questioned the targeting of a building occupied by American civilians. None were injured.
Israel charged that Zibri, widely known as Abu Ali Mustafa, was an explosives expert who presided over an organization attempting to kill Israeli citizens in mortar and car bomb attacks.
He was one of five top leaders in Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. He headed the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the second-largest faction within the PLO, and had returned from exile in Syria just two years ago. The PFLP opposes the landmark Oslo peace accords, which Arafat signed with Israel in 1993, and its military wing has claimed responsibility for several recent bombings in which no one died.
"His hands are soaked in blood, and his resume is full of scores of Israeli victims," said Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Even though none of his recent alleged attacks killed anybody, it was just a matter of time before one did, Gissin said. "There will be no immunity for anyone involved in terrorism."
The killing also sends a message to Arafat, suggesting that the lines protecting Palestinian political as opposed to military leaders are fading, analysts said.
As news of Zibri's death spread, thousands of Palestinians, most of them enraged and some weeping in shock and sorrow or firing guns in defiance, poured into the streets and refugee camp alleyways of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They vowed revenge and warned of a dangerous escalation in violence that has already claimed more than 700 lives.
Arafat's Palestinian Authority declared that Israel "has opened the gates of total war" and accused the Bush administration of giving Israel a "green light" to kill Palestinian leaders.
Later Monday, in what they called "initial revenge," gunmen from Zibri's faction shot and killed a Jewish settler rabbi driving in the West Bank--the eighth Israeli killed by Palestinians in two days. And Monday evening, Palestinians in Beit Jala, a PFLP stronghold, opened fire on the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo on Jerusalem's southern outskirts.
Israel fired back with heavy weapons. After an intense gun battle that raged for hours, it launched an invasion into the mostly Christian village at about 2 a.m. Residents saw tanks drive through the center of town and take over five buildings. Churches and mosques issued calls to defend the town. One Palestinian policeman was reported killed and an Israeli civilian in Gilo injured.
Israeli tanks and infantry also were entering the southern part of the Gaza Strip, which has been the site of intense fighting and arms smuggling, demolishing houses as they went, witnesses and the army said.
Hard-line members of Sharon's government have demanded severe punishment of Beit Jala because of regular shootings aimed at Gilo, which Israel considers a part of Jerusalem but Palestinians regard as an illegal settlement.
The army said early today that the operation is limited and will last only until the shooting stops--which is unlikely. If the troops stay in Beit Jala, which is adjacent to Bethlehem, traditionally considered the birthplace of Jesus, their presence will represent the most significant reoccupation of Palestinian territory since the Oslo agreement.
Zibri was sitting at his desk when a U.S.-made Israeli combat helicopter fired one precision-guided missile through the window of his office's northern facade. Ten seconds later, another crashed through the western window. He was killed instantly.
The missiles flew through the windows with minimal damage, but the devastation inside the office was complete. The desk was in pieces, an armchair soaked with blood lay in a heap, the dead man's business cards were scattered among glass shards and rubble that covered the floor.