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10 Die as Israeli Forces Intensify Drive Against Palestinian Militants

An 11-year-old is among those killed during two West Bank clashes. The military action comes as the nation ushers in the Jewish New Year.

September 16, 2004|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Israel stepped up its assault on Palestinian militants Wednesday with a pair of confrontations less than 12 hours apart that exacted the West Bank's highest one-day death toll in more than two years. Nine Palestinian men and an 11-year-old girl were killed, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.

The violence came as Israelis were ushering in the New Year -- 5765, according to the Jewish calendar -- which was marked by prayers, family gatherings and extremely tight security. In what has become a holiday ritual, volunteer armed guards signed up to keep watch at synagogues around the country.

The two-day holiday of Rosh Hashanah began at sundown Wednesday, and will be followed closely by a string of other Jewish holidays. The West Bank and Gaza Strip will be tightly sealed during this time, with virtually no Palestinians allowed to enter Israel.

The intensified military drive against armed Palestinian factions such as Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade coincided with deep political troubles for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who is trying to proceed with his plans to withdraw Jewish settlers and Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip.

In traditional pre-holiday interviews with Israeli media, Sharon shrugged off death threats that have come from radical settlers and the rabbis who minister to them.

"I have never personally been afraid for my safety, and I am not afraid now either," the 76-year-old former general told the newspaper Haaretz.

Such threats have been steadily mounting. Israeli authorities Wednesday weighed whether to take legal action against Rabbi Yossi Dayan, a former adherent of the outlawed Kach movement, who declared that he was ready to carry out a mystical Kabbalistic ceremony known as pulsa denura, or "lashes of fire" -- in effect, putting a hex on Sharon.

Right-wing rabbis performed such a ceremony before the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an ultranationalist Jew, Yigal Amir, who opposed plans to cede land to the Palestinians in exchange for peace.

Dayan told Israel's Channel 2 on Tuesday night that there were those who wished Sharon dead, and added that he was among them. "Can't I wish?" he asked.

In the interviews, Sharon took the opportunity to state the obvious: that the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which calls for Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate territorial questions, is in tatters. "Even now we are not following the road map," he told the newspaper Yediot Aharonot.

The Israeli leader has said repeatedly -- and with the blessing of the Bush administration -- that if he is able to stage a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, Israel will retain large settlement blocs in the West Bank. Alluding again to that strategy, Sharon told Yediot Aharonot that after any Gaza withdrawal, "there will be a long period when nothing else happens" in regard to any pullback in the West Bank.

Wednesday's violence began before dawn in the northern West Bank town of Nablus. Five wanted Palestinian militants died in a shootout with commandos who moved in on a building where the men were holed up, the Israeli army said.

As is so often the case, civilian deaths associated with such raids were a matter of heated dispute. Palestinian hospital officials said an 11-year-old girl was shot and killed shortly after the gun battle ended, but neither side acknowledged firing shots in the area at that time.

Later, in the northern West Bank town of Jenin, Israeli troops with an undercover unit of the paramilitary border police killed four Palestinians after apparently surprising a group of wanted men at a cafe in the city center. Israeli authorities identified the fugitives' commander as Fadhi Zacharna, who was believed responsible for several terrorist attacks.

Israelis said all four men who died were wanted militants, but Palestinians said two were civilian bystanders and a third was a police officer.

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