21 - 27 November 2002
Issue No. 613
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875
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Expanding the settlements

Israel is consolidating its reoccupation of Hebron following a guerrilla attack earlier this week. Khaled Amayreh reports

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The Israeli army re-invaded Hebron and arrested more than 60 Palestinians associated with the Islamic Jihad group
The Israeli army has consolidated its reoccupation of Hebron following the 15 November Islamic Jihad guerrilla attack near the settlement of Kiryat Arba'a. The guerrilla operation resulted in the death of 12 Israeli soldiers, including the Hebron area commander of the Israeli army, Dror Weinberg, some settlers and three Palestinian fighters.

In reaction, thousands of Israeli troops backed by tanks and armoured personnel carriers swept into the erstwhile Palestinian Authority-run parts of Hebron, imposing a strict curfew on the town and terrorising its estimated 150,000 inhabitants.

A day later, Israeli bulldozers demolished at least six homes in the Wadi Al-Nassara neighbourhood where a two-hour battle ensued, rendering six large families homeless.

The Israeli army provided no convincing justification for the exceptionally harsh measure, other than suggesting it was a reprisal for the attack.

However, revenge was certainly underway as thousands of Israeli soldiers conducted house-to-house searches for young Palestinians suspected of being affiliated with militant groups such Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

Initial reports indicated that more than 60 people have been rounded up so far, most of them political activists associated with the Islamic Jihad group, which took responsibility for the "Sabbath Eve's ambush". The detainees were blindfolded, handcuffed and then taken aboard army buses to the nearby Magnuna military camp.

Meanwhile, Israeli bulldozers were busy destroying Palestinian orchards and vineyards in the area between Kiryat Arba'a and the small Jewish enclave in the heart of Hebron.

Initially, the Israeli army and government sought to portray the guerrilla attack which targeted soldiers and armed settlers as a "massacre of Jewish worshippers by cowardly Arab terrorists", prompting strong condemnations from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the US State Department and the European Union (EU). However, as the true story of what happened unfolded, the Israeli media and some opposition figures admitted that no massacre had taken place, no innocent worshippers had been targeted and that what happened was actually a battle between three determined Palestinian fighters on the one hand, and well-trained soldiers and militiamen on the other.

Nonetheless, Israeli officials, especially Foreign Minister and former Premier Benyamin Netanyahu, continued to speak of "Arab terrorists targeting peaceful Jews returning home from Sabbath prayers".

Netanyahu, who since his electoral defeat by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 1998 has moved farther to the right from Ariel Sharon, renewed his demand for the expulsion of Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Yasser Arafat, arguing that Arafat was the "head and leader of the terrorists".

Sharon rejected Netanyahu's "electioneering rhetoric", and said that in response to the guerrilla ambush his government would choose another course of action. He declared that the 1997 Hebron Protocol, which Netanyahu signed with Arafat under American pressure, was now null and void. Sharon added that his government would see to it that the "Jewish presence in Hebron is expanded and strengthened".

The implication of Sharon's remarks was entirely clear, especially for thousands of Jewish settlers from Kiryat Arba'a and surrounding settlements who gathered at the site of the ambush to listen to speaker after speaker calling for the creation of a new settlement on the spot to join Kiryat Arba'a to the Jewish enclave in downtown Hebron.

Among the speakers was Zvi Zatsover, head of Kiryat Arba'a's local council, who urged the government to destroy hundreds of Palestinian homes and confiscate more land to "realise our dream", as he put it.

Other rightwing leaders, such as Knesset member Mikhael Kleiner, went as far as proposing blanket bombing of towns and villages while leaving border-crossings open. Kleinar was, in other words, advocating the transfer of Palestinians.

On 17 November scores of settlers moved in, taking over the bulldozed Palestinian orchards to build a new settlement outpost. And in the first 24 hours of the new settlement's life, the settlers went from pitching tents to hooking up water lines and an electric generator. By dusk, settler children were laughing and playing soccer on a field that only 24 hours earlier was planted with olive trees.

Some young settlers made their way to nearby Arab homes, smashing windows and vandalising property, while older settlers and Israeli soldiers looked on.

For its part, the PA, which refused to condemn the attack, castigated the Israeli government's plans for settlement expansion in Hebron.

"They are not only building a new Jewish settlement, there is an effort aimed at the Judaisation of Hebron, and this is a major crime," Arafat told reporters in Ramallah.

On Sunday Arafat sent letters to the members of the Quartet (the United States, the EU, Russia and the United Nations), urging them to intervene and prevent Israel from expanding Jewish settlement in Hebron.

"What is happening in Hebron is an attempt to cover up for the Israeli military escalation in Nablus, Tulkarm, Jenin, and Gaza," he said.

The daring guerrilla attack in Hebron, which the Islamic Jihad said was in retaliation for the assassination by the Israeli army of the group's Jenin leader, Iyad Sawalha, on 8 November, was also preceded by a spate of Israeli attacks and incursions in Nablus, Jenin and the Gaza Strip that left more than 15 Palestinians dead.

The latest victims of Israeli state terror included a 21-year-old woman in Nablus who was killed while sitting in the veranda of her home, and two school-age boys shot dead, also in Nablus, for allegedly hurling stones at Israeli tanks.

Earlier this week in Rafah, at the southern edge of the Gaza Strip, Israeli soldiers killed three children, aged two, three and seven, respectively.

The Israeli army issued its customary statement, saying, "the army is investigating the reported deaths."

On 18 November, Israeli tanks and armoured personnel carriers attacked the Sheikh Ijlin neighbourhood in the heart of Gaza City, destroying the offices of the Palestinian Preventive Security Force.

Earlier, Israeli attack helicopters destroyed three foundries and metal workshops in Gaza.

The frequency and scope of Israeli attacks and incursions against Palestinians is expected by some observers to increase as the Israeli general elections, slated for 28 January, draw near.

Meanwhile, there are indications that the Egyptian-sponsored talks between Fatah and Hamas in Cairo last week made significant progress, prompting the Egyptian intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman to visit Israel and the West Bank in an aim to push the parties towards a sort of truce, at least during the run-up to the Israeli election.

According to Hamas sources in Gaza, the movement agreed in principle to stop attacks targeting Israeli civilians inside Israel proper if Israel agreed to stop attacks on Palestinian civilians and put an end to assassinations of Palestinian activists.

Hamas's gesture was made possible thanks to efforts by the Egyptian governments and some EU officials who came to recognise the vital role Hamas plays in the Palestinian arena and the conviction that without the movement's cooperation, efforts at reviving the peace process wouldn't succeed.

Sharon, who met with Suleiman on 14 November, refused to make any commitment to stop Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians, prompting one PA official to remark that "Sharon and his cohorts, not Hamas, are responsible for the escalation of violence."

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