Jihad member killed in airstrike
RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) – In the second Israeli airstrike in less than a week, helicopter gunships homed in on a pickup truck and fired rockets on Monday that killed an Islamic militant suspected of planting roadside bombs.
In the biblical town of Bethlehem, Palestinian gunmen and Israeli soldiers exchanged intense gunfire. An Israeli soldier was killed and at least eight Palestinians were wounded. Clouds of white smoke rose from Bethlehem, from tank shells and grenade launchers, and the thunderous booms could be heard in central Jerusalem, a few miles away.
In office for less than a month, Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon finds himself in a worsening battle with Palestinian militants. Sharon has promised to restore calm, but so far he has employed military tactics similar to those used by his predecessor Ehud Barak, who was voted out of office after failing to quell the Palestinian uprising.
Palestinians blamed Israel for the recent increase in fighting. ”All these Israeli attacks will destroy the peace process and increase the cycle of violence in the region,” said Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo.
Peace talks have broken down, and there are no prospects for their revival at present. Secretary of State Colin Powell called Sharon on Monday, President Bush said in Washington.
An official in Sharon’s office, requesting anonymity, said Sharon told Powell that Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority is responsible for escalating violence, and Israel must act to protect its citizens.
Later, Powell called Arafat, who asked him for help in ending what he called Israeli aggression, said Arafat’s spokesman, Nabil Aburdeneh.
In the Gaza Strip, the Israeli helicopter attack killed 29-year-old Mohammed Abdel Al, a member of Islamic Jihad’s military wing, and turned his truck into a pile of twisted, smoldering metal.
Four Israeli helicopter gunships hovered above Abdel Al’s truck near the Rafah refugee camp on the border with Egypt, and two of the gunships unleashed rockets, said a cousin, Sami Abdel Al.
At Abdel Al’s burial a few hours later, thousands of mourners shouted ”revenge, revenge” as they marched behind the body draped in red blanket. Dozens of gunmen fired into the air.
One marcher asked the crowd: ”Are you ready to become suicide bombers?”
”Yes, yes, unto heaven,” the crowd responded.
”Are you ready to become martyrs and join Mohammed?” the man asked.
”We are the army of jihad (holy war) and we will burn the land,” the crowd responded.
Referring to the helicopter assault, Israeli Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh said it was aimed at preventing Palestinian attacks. ”These are people who have set themselves a goal of destroying Israel,” he told army radio.
An Israeli security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Abdel Al killed an Israeli soldier in a 1994 shooting attack, helped plot a 1995 suicide bombing that killed more than 20 Israelis and in February planted two roadside bombs in Gaza.
Abdel Al, a father of three, was a leading member of the military wing of Islamic Jihad, according to relatives.
More than a dozen Palestinians have been killed in such targeted attacks attributed to Israel in six months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
The United States has criticized the policy, but it has also urged Arafat to publicly denounce the attacks launched from the Palestinian side.
”What happened in Gaza today is part of an Israeli plan to terrorize the Palestinians,” said Mohammed Dahlan, a Palestinian security chief in Gaza. ”Sharon’s government should recognize that such aggression will not bring peace and security.”
Since fighting began last September, Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility for four bombings, and Israel has blamed the group for four more. The eight attacks killed 12 Israelis.
The fighting in Bethlehem began when Palestinian gunmen fired at Israeli soldiers guarding Rachel’s Tomb, an Israeli enclave in the Palestinian-controlled town and the traditional burial site of the biblical matriarch, the army said.
Israeli troops crouching behind sandbags fired small rockets – apparently grenade launchers – and machine guns at Aida refugee camp near Rachel’s Tomb, Palestinian witnesses said.
Later, Israeli tanks stationed next to the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo in a disputed part of Jerusalem fired tank shells toward the camp, also hitting a hotel the Palestinians were using as a firing position. At least eight Palestinians were wounded in the two exchanges.
On Sunday night, an Israeli reserve soldier was killed in a firefight near the West Bank town of Nablus. Palestinians shot at an army post, and Israeli troops returned fire.
In a leaflet distributed in the West Bank, a Palestinian group calling itself the ”Return Brigade” said it attacked the army post to avenge the deaths of five Palestinians from the Nablus area killed last week in clashes with Israeli soldiers.
In more the six months of fighting, 458 people have been killed, including 375 Palestinians, 64 Israeli Jews and 19 others.
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