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The World | THE MIDDLE EAST

Violence Escalates in Fresh Round of Bloody Attacks

Conflict: Palestinian gunman kills five in a Jewish settlement, while Israeli attacks in Gaza, West Bank reportedly kill dozens.

March 08, 2002|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — A lone Palestinian gunman slipped inside a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip late Thursday night, killing five Israeli students and wounding 23 people on a day of violence that seemed to bring Israelis and Palestinians to the brink of all-out war.

Since Thursday morning, more than 30 Palestinians have died in the fighting.

Israel launched airstrikes and sent tanks and troops into the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem, neighboring Beit Jala and two refugee camps in the area today, hours after the attack on the settlement.

Troops also pushed into Gazan villages. Sixteen Palestinians were killed today in the southern Gazan village of Khuzaa, Palestinians reported, including Maj. Gen. Ahmed Mefrej, chief of Palestinian national security forces in the southern Gaza Strip. Three more Palestinians, two of them policemen and one an ambulance driver, were killed in the northern Gaza Strip, the sources said. Dozens have been wounded.

Throughout Thursday, Israel pressed its campaign to break Palestinian militias and shake the foundations of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, attacking towns, refugee camps and security positions. Fifteen Palestinians were reportedly killed.

Palestinians continued their revenge attacks Thursday, with one suicide bomber blowing himself up in the lobby of a hotel on the edge of the West Bank's second-largest Jewish settlement, injuring 10 people, and another being overpowered by the staff at a trendy Jerusalem restaurant before he could detonate a large bomb.

The deadliest attack on Israelis came at the settlement of Atzmona, where a gunman later identified by Palestinians as Mohammed Farahat, 19, of the militant Islamic movement Hamas opened fire at a pre-military training academy for Israeli youths.

Israel Radio reported that he fired his gun and threw grenades for about 15 minutes before a squad of soldiers shot him to death.

Before dawn today, Palestinians reported seeing Israeli tanks move into Bethlehem and Beit Jala. Missiles were fired into security buildings, and Palestinians reported that three people were killed.

The government launched its current offensive Monday, after a string of deadly Palestinian attacks on Israelis over the weekend. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed to "beat" the Palestinians until Israel breaks the militias producing a seemingly endless stream of suicide bombers and gunmen.

Israeli troops took control Thursday of the West Bank town of Tulkarm and two refugee camps on its outskirts. The army has branded the area a hotbed of terrorism. Gun battles raged into the night there, and there were reports that scores of Palestinian gunmen were trapped in one camp as Israeli soldiers advanced.

Palestinians reported that 11 people, including two ambulance workers, were killed in the fighting. Five of the dead were gunmen, according to Palestinians. Four more Palestinians were reportedly killed late Thursday night.

Israeli officials said the bloodshed will continue.

"There is an all-out terrorist onslaught against us," said Avi Pazner, a government spokesman. "This . . . is a policy of trying to quell terrorism."

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, Arafat was defiant amid the growing devastation around him.

"No one can shake the Palestinians," he told reporters in the compound where Israel has kept him confined for three months. "If the Israelis believe that they can frighten them by tanks or by missiles or by Apaches [helicopter gunships], then they are mistaken."

The Palestinians showed no sign of seeking a halt in the fighting. Even with their cities under siege, militants continued to attempt revenge attacks Thursday.

In the late afternoon, a Palestinian walked into a hotel that is part of a shopping mall at the entrance to the Jewish settlement of Ariel. The bomber wounded 14 people, one of them seriously, and killed himself when he detonated explosives strapped to his body. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist Palestinian organization, claimed responsibility in a phone call to Associated Press.

The bombing came hours after a young Palestinian carrying a large backpack walked into Caffit, a popular eatery in the upscale south Jerusalem neighborhood of German Colony and asked for a glass of water.

"A customer told me he looked suspicious," said Gaby Altaratz, 34, one of Caffit's owners. "He was sweating profusely and looked nervous. I walked up and asked him: 'What are you doing here?' " Altaratz said in an interview. "He smiled and said: 'Who? Me?' His hands were all the time in his pockets, and then I knew he was a terrorist."

Altaratz, a waiter and a private security guard pulled the man outside the restaurant, and the waiter, Shlomi Harel, pulled a wire from his sleeve, detaching it from the backpack on one end and a switch on the other, Altaratz said. They stripped off the man's jacket and pulled the pack from his back.

The three told patrons to evacuate the restaurant and restrained the man until police arrived.

Residents were shaken by the thwarted attack, which turned their normally bustling neighborhood into an armed police camp for several hours as police searched for other explosives.

"This was one of the safe places in Jerusalem," said a downcast Menny Benhaim, 31, an optometrist whose office is across the street from Caffit. "People don't want to go downtown, they don't want to go to the mall--now they won't want to come here, either. No place is safe."

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