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Israeli Army to Rely More on Raids by Special Forces

Mideast: Such overnight 'pinpoint' operations against Palestinian targets are quick and tend to draw less public scrutiny, officials say.


TEL, West Bank — Faces painted black, Israeli soldiers crept into this hillside Palestinian village in the middle of the night. At one house, they did battle with an Islamic militant wanted in the 1998 killing of two Jews, shooting him to death as his gun blazed.

Over the next 12 hours, they rounded up 45 villagers, strip-searched men and boys and confiscated a handful of weapons.

Compared with last month's large-scale military incursions into Palestinian cities, the raid on Tel by Israeli special forces was quick and received little notice. But it represents the kind of guerrilla-style operations that the Israeli army says it will do more of as its bloody fight with the Palestinians drags well into a second year.

The government of right-wing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has decided to increase overnight raids on Palestinian villages in pursuit of militants suspected in attacks on Israelis.

"We will act against anyone who wants to attack us, in any place, without boundaries," Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said this week.

The government doesn't plan to abandon other tactics, such as the use of helicopter gunships and booby-trapped cars to hunt and kill those it accuses of terror activity. But it believes that shorter "pinpoint" raids can be more efficient and stir up less international condemnation, a senior official said.

Israel argues that it has to arrest or eliminate suspects because Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has failed to do so.

In Tel, a village of about 4,000 people in the central West Bank that is considered a stronghold of the radical Islamic movement Hamas, residents said the Israeli incursion, which began about 3 a.m. Monday and ended that afternoon, left them feeling vulnerable and scared.

Kharyeh Hilmi, a 55-year-old grandmother, said she was rousted from her home about 4 a.m. by soldiers in full combat gear and black face paint. Her four adult sons were handcuffed and blindfolded. They, their wives and five children were marched up the steep hill outside their home to the roadside above, where they had to wait for hours while soldiers searched the property, she said.

When the soldiers left, the Hilmi house was a shambles, drawers and closets upended, a box of Korans dumped on a back balcony.

Hilmi said the soldiers seized three guns, about a dozen kitchen knives and two pairs of binoculars. Two of her sons--both members of Palestinian security forces--were taken away. A fifth son who wasn't present is on Israel's wanted list, villagers said.

In all, the army says it seized 45 men in Tel. Many were later released, and by Wednesday, 16 remained in custody, Israeli security officials said, accused of belonging to Hamas, Islamic Jihad or other Palestinian militias.

Military officials said the army's undercover Duvdevan unit, combined with forces from the Haruv battalion, which until last year fought Islamic insurgents in southern Lebanon, entered Tel to round up Palestinians whom Israel suspects of planning or carrying out attacks on Israelis.

Among those apparently was Mohammed Rihan, 25, of Hamas' military wing. His mother, Mayser, said they heard first the helicopters, then the approach of soldiers about 3 a.m. Her son was determined not to be taken alive, she said. Rihan burst out the front door, with a shout of "Allahu akbar!" (God is great!) and his gun blazing, Mayser said. A coroner in nearby Nablus later counted 32 bullet holes in Rihan's chest, back and sides.

His family said he had been in a Palestinian prison for his role in a 1998 killing of two Jewish settlers but was released about four months ago when Israel began shelling police posts and jails.

"This is [Palestinian-controlled] territory, so he thought he was safe here," his sister-in-law, Nujood, 23, said as she sat with other female family members and numerous children on the narrow street in front of the Rihan house. They had covered the bloodstains with sand.

After Rihan was killed, the soldiers ordered the other men in his house--four brothers, his father, several uncles and two boys--to walk into the street, hands over their heads, Nujood and other relatives said. They said the soldiers then searched the Rihan men and boys, most forced to peel down to their underwear.

Mayser said that when the shooting started, she telephoned the Palestinian police, both in Tel and in Nablus, to beg for help. But no one came.

Armored personnel carriers and bulldozers later moved in to Tel. One home, belonging to the family of a man killed by Israeli forces while allegedly on his way to a suicide bombing, was demolished.

Army spokesmen said Tel villagers were warned before the raid began to remain inside their homes for safety. But several villagers said they received no such alert.

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