Archives>MIDDLE EAST> Israel Retaliates Against Palestinians for Ambush

Israel Retaliates Against Palestinians for Ambush
JAMES BENNET . NY Times . 20 february 2002

Yasir Arafat's special guards carried a comrade during his funeral today after Israel launched a reprisal for a Palestinian ambush.

JERUSALEM, Wednesday, Feb. 20 — Launching attacks by air, land and sea, Israel retaliated today against Palestinians for an ambush on a West Bank outpost on Tuesday night in which six Israeli soldiers were killed.

Palestinian officials said that 15 Palestinians were killed today when Israeli troops hit Palestinian Authority positions.

Israeli forces attacked Yasir Arafat's official compound in Gaza City early today, killing at least four members of his elite guard, Palestinian officials said.

The Associated Press reported that seven more Palestinians were killed in the shelling of two police checkpoints near the West Bank town of Nablus and two others in a firefight outside the Balata refugee camp, which is also close to Nablus. One person was killed in an airstrike on a Palestinian police post in Ramallah, and another person was killed in a firefight near the town.

The Associated Press said that, all told, 12 Palestinian policemen, two gunmen and a civilian were killed in the attacks.

Tuesday night's ambush was the most lethal attack on Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in more than 16 months of fighting.

The raid on the Israeli soldiers followed a dizzying 24 hours of shooting, shelling, bombing and rocket attacks that, before Tuesday night's toll, had claimed the lives of at least 16 people, including attackers and attacked — Palestinian militants, Israeli soldiers and civilians on both sides who were cut down in the intensifying cross-fire.

The Israeli Army said late Tuesday night that it believed that two squads of Palestinian gunmen ambushed the soldiers, at an Israeli checkpoint at Ein Ariq, in the stony hills west of the Palestinian-controlled city of Ramallah.

One squad opened fire on two soldiers on duty at the checkpoint, wounding one man slightly and the other moderately, the army said. At the same time, at least one gunman burst into the outpost where six other off-duty soldiers were relaxing and killed them all at close range, the army said.

An Israeli medic, Baruch Borer, described the attack to Israeli television as "a cold-blooded massacre."

Further Israeli reprisals for the ambush were likely. Before the Tuesday night attack, Israel's military and political leaders, under heavy criticism from the right, were already searching for some more effective means of combating violence with Israel's own force of arms.

Palestinian militants are compensating for the inferiority of their weaponry and armor by relying on surprise, speed and suicide. Vaunted for years for their flexibility and toughness, Israel's defense forces have started to seem slow and vulnerable as they battle fighters who hide in the civilian population and then attack without fear of death.

As the army is criticized by the Israeli right for doing too little, it is under fire from other quarters, at home and abroad, for doing too much. Today the Israeli Supreme Court weighed in, temporarily blocking the army from demolishing some homes in the Gaza Strip. The court plans a hearing on the army action on Thursday.

Separately, an Israeli human rights group accused the army today of recklessly shooting and firing tank shells into a civilian area, killing three Palestinian civilians in the course of repelling an attack on a Jewish settlement in Gaza.

The army said that it was investigating the episode, but that the soldiers had not intentionally fired toward civilians.

In uncertain numbers but with rising voices, Israelis have begun calling on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to abandon his refusal to negotiate with Palestinian leaders while violence continues. Other Israelis counter that such demands provide aid and comfort to the enemy, which they say brooks no democratic dissent.

For more than two months, Mr. Sharon has confined Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, to Ramallah, in what Israel insists is an effort to pressure him to stop the violence. Mr. Arafat's aides say he is not politically strong enough to stop militants while Israel confines him and holds out no possibility of negotiations.

The Israeli Army has relied on a number of military tactics to combat violence: blockades of Palestinian areas, incursions into Palestinian-controlled areas, arrests and killings of suspected militants, and air raids. Some of those tactics, and their limitations, were on display today.

From a clear blue sky Monday morning over the Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, an Israeli rocket whistled into the cinderblock wall of an office rented by the Islamic group Hamas. Israel said it was not trying to kill any wanted militants, but instead to send a message of reprisal to Hamas for recent attacks.

But the rocket killed two low-ranking Hamas members, one of them a volunteer in the office, and injured several children who were playing or sitting outside. One of children, a 9-year-old girl, was severely wounded by shrapnel.

Minutes later, Hamas members inside the office the were collecting scarlet human remains on the smashed door of a cabinet. Blood had spattered the open pages of a Koran as well as the pitted, scorched walls, and a bloody handprint marked the bent door frame.

If the rocket was intended not merely as revenge but as deterrence, they insisted it would have the opposite effect. "The Israelis always surprise with their terrorist attacks," said Ribhisi al-Rantisi, a Hamas member, as he stood by the five-foot hole in the office wall. "So Hamas feels obliged to answer back. This time, Hamas has to take revenge and answer back with an assassination."

The complex mission assigned the Israeli Army was demonstrated as well by its operation overnight Monday near the Khan Younis refugee camp, also in the Gaza Strip. Israeli forces killed one Palestinian gunman and chased another off after the two men tried to attack the settlement of Morag.

The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem said that, in firing north of the settlement's greenhouses, the soldiers raked shacks belonging to Palestinians, killing a man, a woman and a 17-year old girl, and wounding several more people. Palestinian officials confirmed the deaths.

B'Tselem accused the army of preventing an ambulance from reaching the woman and teenager. The group said one of its field-workers was riding in the ambulance when soldiers opened fire at it, shattering its windshield.

The army denied that its soldiers intentionally fired toward civilians, saying that they were under orders not to. An army spokeswoman expressed frustration at not being able to respond in detail tonight to the accusations, pending a complete investigation.

For the third time in 48 hours, an alert Israeli foiled an attempted suicide bombing on Tuesday. Near the West Bank settlement of Mehola in the Jordan Valley, a bus driver, Shalom Drei, thought a man climbing onto the second step of the bus looked suspicious. "He wore an aviator's jacket, zipped all the way up," Mr. Drei told Israeli television. "It looked strange to me."

Mr. Drei pushed the stranger back off the bus, then, as the bus pulled away, the man exploded.

Palestinian militants regard soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as legitimate targets because Israel occupied those lands during the 1967 war. Although Israel rejects any such distinction between its citizens, some Palestinian leaders have urged that the fight be concentrated in those areas in the hope of gaining international support.

With the death toll mounting and more Israelis drawing a parallel between this fight and the army's 18-year war of attrition in Lebanon, some politicians and analysts are urging the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip; others are calling for a partial or complete reoccupation of the territories, some of which Israel has ceded to Palestinian control; and still others are demanding the unilateral withdrawal of Israeli soldiers.

The debate has not gone unnoticed by Palestinians. Speaking in Hebrew, one Palestinian analyst of Israeli affairs said on Palestinian television, "Israeli society is disintegrating and fragmenting. Sharon is now in a historic dilemma, and he is completely hopeless."