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More Israeli Troops, Tanks Roll In

Mideast: Government says intent is to pressure Arafat, not invade West Bank. Palestinians are still calling for revenge for killings of 4 men.

July 19, 2001|MARY CURTIUS and TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Enraged Palestinians buried their latest martyrs Wednesday as Israel said its deployment of more troops and tanks in the West Bank is not a prelude to invasion but a means of putting pressure on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Army checkpoints sprung up on West Bank roads controlled by Israel, and a cluster of seven newly positioned tanks could be seen at an army base in Gush Etzion, a block of Jewish settlements south of Jerusalem. The army said it also deployed additional tanks and troops north of Jenin, a Palestinian-controlled town in the northern West Bank.

"This is a stop sign, a warning to Arafat," said government spokesman Avi Pazner. "Time and again they [Palestinian leaders] have done nothing to stop terrorism. This is an intolerable situation."

Arafat, the Palestinian Authority president, was quick to condemn the military buildup. "What is happening now with Israeli escalation shows their intention to continue their aggression," he declared in Cairo, where he was attending a meeting of Arab foreign ministers.

The show of force did not quell Palestinian demands for revenge following Israel's killing Tuesday of four men during a helicopter gunship attack on a Bethlehem home.

Thousands of mourners filled Nativity Square outside the Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born. The crowd accompanied the bodies of the four men, who were declared martyrs by leaders of the uprising against Israel, to their graves.

Speakers vowed to step up attacks. Their words were punctuated by the crack of thousands of rounds of ammunition fired by hundreds of masked gunmen who were honoring one of the slain men, Omar Saadeh, 45, a local leader of the Islamic movement Hamas.

A very different group of mourners came to pay respects to Saadeh's 51-year-old brother, Ezhak, who also died in the gunship attack. Fellow teachers and students from the Catholic Terra Santa school marched sadly behind banners commemorating the veteran educator and father of 10. Friends said he had been active for several years in a joint Israeli-Palestinian peace education project.

"I knew Ezhak for 27 years," said Sami Sayeh, an English teacher at Terra Santa. "He was a peace activist. This area had been quite calm for the last two months, but these killings have inflamed everyone. Many people are starting to think of how they can inflict casualties on the Israelis."

An Israeli army spokesman said Omar Saadeh was targeted because the army had intelligence reports that he was planning to bomb a quadrennial Jewish sporting competition, the Maccabiah, underway in Israel until Monday.

Ezhak Saadeh was apparently an unintended victim. His death brought expressions of grief from Israeli colleagues who had worked with him at the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information, founded 12 years ago by Israelis and Palestinians during the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, which ended in 1993. The current intifada began last September.

"I asked Ezhak, after this intifada began, how his family was coping," recalled Gershon Baskin, the Israeli director of the center. "He said that we can't educate our children on hatred, that we have to keep the dream and the hope alive."

Ezhak Saadeh was scheduled to participate in a seminar with dozens of Israeli and Palestinian teachers at the center Wednesday, Baskin said. Instead, the director started a memorial fund for Saadeh's family and was consoling Israeli and Palestinian colleagues.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government held a special security meeting Wednesday morning and afterward said it will take additional, unspecified steps to continue its "terrorist interception" policy: attacks on suspected Palestinian militants. Israeli officials also decided to beef up security forces on the Green Line, the pre-June 1967 border with the West Bank, in an effort to keep Palestinians from entering Israel.

But ministers said that no large-scale invasion of Palestinian-controlled territories is imminent, although the government spokesman made it clear that such an invasion was an option if diplomacy fails to secure a real cease-fire.

"We have tried everything else," Pazner said. "We have tried convincing, diplomacy, we sent [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's son to talk to Arafat, we sent [Foreign Minister Shimon] Peres. Nothing works. Nothing works."

And the army's chief spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey, told Army Radio that the troop buildup was carried out "in order to transmit a very clear message that we are there in order to act."

For weeks, the army has been consolidating a number of positions along the edge of Palestinian territory in the West Bank. The repositioning would facilitate an invasion, if the government ordered one, and offers a more effective staging ground for the brief incursions that Israeli forces periodically carry out.

A growing number of Sharon's Cabinet ministers advocate invading areas of the West Bank handed over to the Palestinians under the 1993 Oslo accords. The move would be intended to crush the Palestinian Authority and its numerous security forces. But Sharon is aware that a full-scale invasion risks harsh international condemnation, analysts say.

Wednesday's military deployment may be intended to stir the Bush administration and others in the international community to greater diplomatic action. Israeli officials are pleased that the administration has held Arafat at arm's length--so far denying him a White House visit--but they want to see his arm twisted.

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