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THE WORLD | THE MIDDLE EAST

Israel Tightens Its Grip on the Palestinians

Conflict: The army has imposed a curfew across the West Bank. A strike on a Hamas radical opens a new battlefront in the Gaza Strip.

June 25, 2002|BARBARA DEMICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Even as Israel denied that it was reoccupying the West Bank, its army on Monday tightened its control over the Palestinian population, imposing a curfew that put an estimated 800,000 people under virtual house arrest and ringing the headquarters here of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat with tanks and armored vehicles.

Israel also opened another front in its war against terrorism in the Gaza Strip, where attack helicopters Monday swooped down and bombed the car of an activist in the radical Hamas movement. The activist, Yasser Rizik, and five other Palestinians were killed. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised that the assassination was only the first strike in a campaign of "massive activities" against the Islamic group, which takes responsibility for many of the suicide bombings that have terrorized Israel.

Early today, Israeli troops stormed the hilltop local Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank city of Hebron, leaving Jericho the only Palestinian town on the West Bank not taken over by the army. Palestinians reported that police fought back and that two of them were killed before the soldiers took control of the building. Hebron is the only West Bank town where rule is divided between the Palestinian Authority and Israeli troops who guard enclaves of Jewish settlers living there.

The army said it arrested ''dozens of terror suspects,'' and put Hebron under curfew.

A spate of attacks last week has prompted one of Israel's largest military operations in the West Bank since the Palestinian territory was captured in the 1967 Middle East War.

Palestinian Authority Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said Monday night that Israel is in military control of 99% of the West Bank and that about 800,000 Palestinians are now subject to the curfew.

"If this is not occupation, what is?" Erekat asked.

Israeli officials reiterated Monday that the 6-day-old operation is designed only to root out terrorism and that Israeli forces will remain in the West Bank only as long as it takes to accomplish their mission.

"This is not occupation," Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer declared. "We are there in order to guarantee the safety of our people."

But the campaign, code-named Operation Determined Path, is unnerving many Israelis, who fear they are slipping back into a costly and dangerous entanglement from which they will not be able to extricate themselves. The campaign is inspiring editorials in Israeli newspapers that are tantamount to obituaries for the historic 1993-1995 peace accords that had turned over Gaza and much of the West Bank to Palestinian self-rule and raised hopes for the birth of a Palestinian state.

"The reoccupation of the territories may squash terror for a certain length of time, but it will rise up again in various forms, perhaps more lethal," wrote Israeli columnist Hemi Shalev in the daily newspaper Maariv. "Israel ultimately will have to withdraw [again] from the territories it occupied and return to square one."

This is not the first time that Israel has entered Palestinian-ruled territory over the 21-month course of the current conflict, but Israel is warning--and many believe--that its presence in this round could be a protracted affair. The scope of the operation, however, is difficult to determine because the Israeli army has barred journalists from entering many West Bank cities.

Reporters approaching Arafat's compound Monday were ordered out of Ramallah, where Israeli tanks rolled in before dawn. While loudspeakers warned residents not to leave their homes, up to 80 tanks and armored vehicles surrounded Arafat's walled compound, effectively immobilizing the Palestinian Authority government.

About noon, the city was eerily quiet. A few curious children dared to peek out at the tanks, but there were few adults outside and no cars moving. It appeared that not a single store was open, all commercial life sealed behind turquoise metal shutters.

"We are caged in on our own land," said Afaf Salem, a 45-year-old mother of six.

Salem said that there was no resistance to the Israeli military presence and that people were more resigned than frightened.

Isla Jad, 50, a professor of women's studies at Ramallah's Birzeit University, recalled that she was awakened at 4 a.m. by the sound of military helicopters, and shortly afterward by the tanks.

"I thought, here we go again," Jad said.

At the entrances to Ramallah, cars and trucks backed up for miles at Israeli checkpoints, forcing Palestinians to scramble over rocky hills and through patches of thistle. Staggering with fatigue and drenched in sweat, 48-year-old Awad Nassar had a catheter in his chest, having just been released from a hospital in Ramallah where he had an exploratory heart procedure.

"I have been walking for four hours," said Nassar, who clutched a doctor's report in his hands. "The Israeli soldiers keep yelling at us, 'Curfew, curfew!' but I have to get home."

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