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THE MIDDLE EAST

Israelis Open Fire in Jenin, Killing 4

June 22, 2002|BARBARA DEMICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — As Palestinians in the West Bank city of Jenin emerged from their homes Friday and rushed toward the downtown market during what they thought was a break in the military-imposed curfew, Israeli tanks opened fire on a crowd, killing three children and an adult.

The army promptly apologized for what it said was an error on the part of soldiers who saw a throng of Palestinians approaching.

But in the unforgiving climate of the current conflict, in which mistakes are not easily brushed aside, the incident was brandished by Palestinians as a "new massacre." It seemed almost certain to raise the level of rhetoric and violence sweeping through the region.

It was one of several deadly incidents Friday in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that left 10 Palestinians dead--the highest daily death toll on the Palestinian side since last month, when Israel concluded a military operation designed to root out terrorists.

In what was said to be a tumultuous closed session, the Israeli Cabinet met to endorse a new policy announced this week to occupy and hold pockets of Palestinian territory as a response to and deterrent against terrorism. Government ministers reportedly discussed other tactics--among them, expelling Palestinians believed to be supporting terrorism and punishing family members of suicide bombers.

But officials admitted after the meeting that they were floundering in their efforts to come up with new ideas to stop the suicide bombings and other attacks, which in the last four days have claimed the lives of 31 Israeli civilians, including a settler and three of her children who were killed Thursday.

"There are so many problems, so many questions and very few answers," Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin said after the meeting.

"All of these means have been tried separately in the past, but we are looking at a cocktail of measures that, if used together, might be able to stop the madness," said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

In Orlando, Fla., President Bush called the week's wave of deadly suicide bombings and attacks "outrageous." The violence prompted the postponement of a speech in which he planned to unveil a peace plan for the region.

"There are obviously some in the Middle East who want to use violence to destroy any hopes for peace," he said while visiting a seniors center. "And the world must do everything in its power to prevent the few from creating misery for the many."

Bush gave no sign that he intended to call on Israel for restraint. "Israel has got the right to defend herself," he said.

The president also brushed aside questions about when he would deliver his address on the Middle East. "I'll give the speech when I'm ready," he told reporters.

In the last few days, the Israeli army has plunged deep into Palestinian-controlled territory in the West Bank, rounding up suspected terrorists and imposing curfews. But the military operations have been accompanied by civilian casualties. Of the 10 Palestinians killed Friday, half were children.

The army said in a statement that its troops were in Jenin trying to locate an explosives laboratory. Maintaining that a curfew was still in place, officials said the soldiers were surprised to see Palestinians approaching, and they fired two tank shells to deter them.

"An initial inquiry indicates that the force erred in its action," the statement concluded.

Palestinians saw the incident as part of a gruesome conspiracy, with Voice of Palestine radio describing the alleged lifting of the curfew as "a trap by occupation forces."

Jenin was sealed off to journalists Friday, making it difficult to confirm what happened.

Jamal Shati, a Palestinian legislator, said by telephone that shooting erupted as people were rushing out of their homes to take advantage of a one-hour lifting of a curfew that had been in place for three days. Most needed to shop, but others were headed to the mosque to pray.

"We did not expect they would shoot at us. We thought the lifting of the curfew meant we could leave our homes, get our supplies and come back safely," Shati said. "Everybody was out on the streets.... It is a miracle that there were not more people killed because of all the shooting."

Mohammed abu Ghali, a doctor at the Jenin Government Hospital, identified the dead as a 5-year-old girl and two boys, ages 7 and 11. The slain man was a 50-year-old teacher. About 20 people were injured, hospital officials said.

Before dawn, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy was killed in Jenin when Israeli soldiers blew up a house and the boy's home next door collapsed. Other members of the family were seriously injured.

During a military operation Friday in the Gaza Strip, a 10-year-old Palestinian boy was killed. Although there were conflicting versions of what happened, it appeared that the Israeli army was shooting at a house where it believed Palestinian militants had fired on the Jewish settlement of Netzarim, according to Palestinian sources.

At an industrial park in northern Gaza, a Palestinian threw a grenade at soldiers. The Israelis fired back, killing the attacker as well as two Palestinian workers nearby.

In the West Bank, a 22-year-old Palestinian man was reported killed during a rampage by settlers returning from the funeral of the Israeli woman and three children who were slain Thursday by a gunman who burst into their home.

After the funeral, the settlers reportedly stormed through the nearby Palestinian village of Hawara, randomly shooting and burning cars.

*

Times staff writer Robin Wright in Washington and special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.

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