Archives>MIDDLE EAST> More Than 30 Palestinians Killed as New Fighting Grips Mideast

More Than 30 Palestinians Killed as New Fighting Grips Mideast
SERGE SCHMEMANN with TERENCE NEILAN . NY Times . 8 march 2002

Israeli troops swept through Bethlehem today in the bloodiest day in 17 months of fighting.

JERUSALEM, March 8 — A general and two children were among more than 30 Palestinians killed today as Israeli troops raided villages and refugee camps and sent tanks rolling through Bethlehem.

Five Israeli teenagers died late Thursday when a Palestinian gunman attacked a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, and an Israeli soldier was killed by Palestinian gunmen today in a West Bank refugee camp.

Palestinian officials said the raids were intended to sabotage a mediation effort announced on Thursday by President Bush, who said Gen. Anthony C. Zinni would be sent back to the Middle East next week in an effort to end the violence.

Today's deadliest gun battle took place in the village of Khouza in southern Gaza, in which 16 Palestinians, including a regional commander of the Palestinian security forces, Maj. Gen. Ahmed Mefraj, were killed, Palestinians said. Fourteen of those killed were reported to be armed.

Witnesses said Israelis fired from helicopter gunships and tanks. The Israeli Army said the village was a center of terrorist activity.

General Mefraj rushed to the area after hearing of the Israeli incursion and died after his car was hit by a tank shell and machine gun fire, Palestinian security officials said.

Israeli forces also attacked a Palestinian police base north of Gaza City after midnight. Gunboats fired machine guns, and helicopters fired three missiles at the base, witnesses said. Five people were killed, including a rescue worker in an ambulance, doctors said.

In continued fighting in the West Bank, 12 Palestinians were killed, with the heaviest gun battles reported in the Tulkarm refugee camp and in the Bethlehem area just south of Jerusalem.

In the Tulkarm camp, five Palestinians were killed today, including a 9-year-old boy. An Israeli soldier was also killed in the Tulkarm fighting, the army said.

Hospital officials said Israeli troops prevented ambulances from reaching the camp to treat the wounded. The Israeli Army had no immediate comment but has said in the past that Palestinians used their ambulances to smuggle weapons and gunmen.

In other action, Israeli tanks and troops entered Bethlehem from two directions, witnesses said. Helicopters fired at the Aida refugee camp in the town after Palestinians shot at an Israeli outpost nearby, witnesses said.

Five Palestinians were reported killed and 20 wounded in those attacks. Among the dead were a woman hit by shrapnel from a tank shell that crashed into her home, and Ahmed Sbeih, 42, a hospital administrator whose car was hit by a tank shell.

In fighting on Thursday in Tulkarm, the Israeli Army effectively sealed off the West Bank town and its refugee camps. But the fear was everywhere: in Bethlehem, where a woman described how her son vomited in panic when 500-pound Israeli bombs came down before dawn, or here in Jerusalem, where the authorities warned of more Palestinian suicide bombers poised to strike.

The operation in Tulkarm, a Palestinian town that abuts on Israeli territory, began Wednesday night when a force of several hundred Israeli soldiers backed by tanks seized control of the town and two refugee camps, calling on residents through loudspeakers to stay off the streets. The army said its troops then began a house-to-house search for "wanted men and weapons." Palestinians said four of their number were killed in gunfights with the Israelis.

The army said it would remain in Tulkarm for no more than three days. Israeli forces have conducted similar operations in Nablus, Jenin and northern Gaza, demonstrating their ability to re-enter Palestinian areas at will.

Violence surged in the middle of Thursday night, as it has regularly in recent weeks. Israel Radio reported that the militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for the killing of five Israeli teenagers at the Jewish settlement of Atzmona in the Gaza Strip. The gunman, who used an assault rifle and threw grenades was himself killed in the attack. He was later identified as Mohammed Farhat, 19, from Gaza City.

As the violence increases, people on both sides despair of finding a way out of the bloodshed that increasingly seems to feed on itself, each blow provoking pledges of an even more painful retaliation.

In Bethlehem on Thursday, across the street from the rubble of what had been a British-era police headquarters, Suzanne Elias wandered through her badly damaged house, trying to salvage what she could. After the first attacks on the headquarters several days ago, she and her family had taken refuge with relatives, so they were not there in the predawn darkness when the bombs came again, leaving her home broken and filled with dusty debris.

"I never believed they would do this," she said. Her 11-year-old son, one of three children, woke up and vomited in fear. "They are in shock. He said, `Why do they hit us? What did we do?' I never dreamed it would reach this. Everybody looks at what happens to Israel. Nobody looks at what Israel is doing to us."

The Israelis had struck the headquarters — a three-story, fortresslike compound on the road south to Hebron — three times, once with Apache attack helicopters and twice with jet fighters, reducing it to rubble. Early Thursday, a bomb also struck the new headquarters of Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader. This morning the jets and helicopters were at work again.

The attacks on police and security buildings are depicted by the Israelis as a way to punish the Palestinian Authority into taking action against terrorism. That has not happened. But few Israelis are aware of the terror or damage the bombings spread in the vicinity of the strikes.

"I never thought of leaving," said Ms. Elias's husband, Youssef Elias, co-owner of a beverage distribution company. "I like Bethlehem so much. But last year I began hating Bethlehem. As long as they keep striking, there will be revenge. Stop! Give us our rights!

"Now I am thinking of leaving," he said. "Three days ago I had a nice home. Suddenly I have no house. What do my children see?"

At Mr. Arafat's headquarters, militiamen displayed fragments of a bomb that identified it as a 500-pound guided MK82. They pointed to a medallion with serial numbers and the name Texas Optoelectronics Inc. A company of that name in Garland, Tex., advertises that it is a supplier to the military.