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Israeli Assault on Hamas Fugitives Leaves Palestinian Girl Dead

Troops' attack on two militants wounds child's parents and sister. A passerby is also killed.

March 26, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Israeli troops fired on a car in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Tuesday night, killing two wanted Hamas militants but also spraying bullets at the passing car of a Palestinian family, leaving a 10-year-old girl dead and wounding her parents and sister, Palestinian witnesses and officials said.

Another passerby, a Palestinian man in his 40s, was shot and killed in the same incident, according to Palestinian doctors.

The Israeli army said the Hamas men initiated the exchange of fire.

Elsewhere in the West Bank, a 14-year-old boy was shot dead by army troops during stone-throwing clashes with Israeli soldiers in the northern city of Jenin, Palestinian witnesses and medical officials said. He was the second Palestinian boy in two days to be killed by Israeli soldiers in that city, which is under tight Israeli military control.

The deaths ended what had been a period of relative calm in the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the outbreak Thursday of a U.S.-led war against Iraq.

In the Bethlehem shooting, Palestinian witnesses said Israeli special forces hiding in a vacant lot fired automatic weapons at a car carrying two Hamas fugitives, killing both of them.

The Saadeh family had the misfortune to be driving by at that moment. George Saadeh, a school principal in the predominantly Christian village of Beit Sahur, which adjoins Bethlehem, was shot in the pelvis; his wife, Najweh, was hit in the leg; and their 15-year-old daughter, Mariane, was hit in the hand, Palestinian officials said. Ten-year-old Christine was killed.

The army said the Hamas men shot first at its troops, who were preparing to make an arrest. It called the killing and wounding of civilians "a tragic turn of events." Over the last six weeks, Israel has engaged in a concerted campaign to kill and arrest leaders of Hamas, which has been responsible for killing hundreds of Israelis in the last 2 1/2 years of fighting, many in suicide bombings.

Israel refers to strikes against Palestinian militants as "pinpoint" or "targeted" killings, but many such raids take place in crowded refugee camps or urban Palestinian areas, and civilian casualties are not unusual.

Israeli troops, who have generally stayed on Bethlehem's outskirts in recent weeks, moved into the city center and took up positions near the scene of the shooting, about 500 yards from the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Christ.

Israel also pressed ahead with a campaign of arresting Palestinians suspected of carrying out or planning attacks against Israelis. At least 21 men were detained Tuesday, most of them in early morning raids.

Human rights groups say that more than 1,000 Palestinian suspects are being held without charges by Israel.

Also Tuesday, an Israeli military court sentenced three Palestinians to multiple life terms in prison for involvement in attacks that included the beating deaths of two unarmed Israeli military reservists in the West Bank city of Ramallah in October 2000, in the opening weeks of the current Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

The two soldiers had taken a wrong turn while heading to their West Bank base, and the mob attack on them was captured in both TV footage and photos. In one of the most searing images, the body of one of the soldiers was dangled upside down from the window of a Palestinian police station, and an assailant could be seen a moment later, waving his bloodied hands in triumph.

The three men sentenced Tuesday were said to have belonged to a cell of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a group affiliated with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction. They were also blamed for many other shooting West Bank attacks against Israelis.

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