Once More Unto Bethlehem
An Israeli army demolition squad, crouching at lower left, blows up the most recent residence used by Palestinian suicide bomber Nael Abu Hilail.
(AP)



  BETHLEHEM, Nov. 22, 2002      CBS-News
(CBS) Israeli troops reoccupied Bethlehem before dawn Friday, searching homes and deploying tanks in Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity after 11 bus passengers, including four youngsters, were killed in a Jerusalem suicide bombing.

Israel called it a pinpoint operation, reports CBS News Correspondent Kimberly Dozier. The tanks are blocking the Church of the Nativity and preventing any Palestinian militants from taking refuge inside as occurred in the last major incursion in April. That led to a month-long standoff.

Troops were also searching house-to-house in the bomber's home village of al-Hahder just outside Bethlehem. They say they've arrested at least nine suspects, including three men they believe were also planning to carry out suicide attacks.

Also Friday, Israeli troops exchanged fire with Palestinian gunmen in the Jenin refugee camp during an army raid of the hideout of a local leader of the militant Islamic Jihad group. A U.N. official from Britain and an 11-year-old Palestinian boy were killed in separate incidents in the camp, doctors and U.N. officials said. An Irish national was wounded by army fire in the camp, a Palestinian monitoring group said.

In the Gaza Strip, two Palestinian assailants and an Israeli soldier were killed Friday. One Palestinian had tried to infiltrate into a Jewish settlement and the second from the Islamic militant group Hamas had attacked an army patrol.

Israeli troops also razed five homes or parts of homes of Palestinian terror suspects two in Gaza, two in the West Bank city of Nablus and one in Bethlehem.

Israeli troops blew up the Bethlehem house rented by 22-year-old Nael Abu Hilail's family.  Dozier, standing atop what had been the roof of house, reports it's meant to teach the families and neighbors of attackers that they will suffer for any attack carried out against Israelis.

Fatima Abu Hilail, the bomber's mother, said the army arrested her husband when they came to destroy the house.
"It is an inhuman, criminal act.  I was left without a house for my children," Abu Hulail said as she sat beside the rubble of her home with a group of women.
Nael Abu Hilail's father said after the bombing that he was proud of his son.

With troops back in Bethlehem, Israel was again in control of all Palestinian population centers in the West Bank except for the quiet oasis of Jericho mirroring the massive deployment that capped military offensives in April and June.

However, Israel's range of responses is limited; it is under pressure from the United States to keep a lid on Mideast violence while Washington concentrates on its campaign against Iraq. In responding to Thursday's Jerusalem bus bombing, the Israeli military was expected to stick to tried methods, such as hunting down militants and demolishing homes of terror suspects.

Expelling Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, an option previously raised by hardliners in the Israeli Cabinet, was not discussed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz in consultations Thursday.

Israeli police said Friday that the bus bombing was carried out jointly by the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.  Both groups claimed responsibility, but neither called it a joint attack.

Hilail blew up 11 pounds of explosives strapped to his waist on a Jerusalem city bus that carried many youngsters on their way to school.  Among those killed were seven adults and four youngsters, ages 8, 13 and 16.

Following the bombing, Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo condemned "all acts of violence which target Palestinian and Israeli civilians."  He blamed Israel for the violence, but called on Palestinian factions to stop targeting Israeli civilians.

Army officials said the Israeli presence in Bethlehem was open-ended, but that troops hoped to be out by Christmas. "The idea is to have a completely safe atmosphere by Christmas so that tourists can come without fear of a terrorist attack," said an army spokesman, Doron Spielman.

However, in the past 26 months of fighting, Israeli soldiers have repeatedly kept foreign visitors out of Bethlehem, Jesus' traditional birthplace, citing security reasons.  Palestinian merchants have complained that the closure is destroying the town's economy, which heavily depends on tourism.

Bethlehem's mayor, Hanna Nasser, said the Israeli incursion would not help end "the vicious cycle of violence but will increase the suffering of the people and harm the economic standards for both Palestinians and Israelis."

The U.N. official, identified as Ian Hook, 50, was killed as Israeli troops raided the hideout of an Islamic Jihad fugitive in the Jenin camp.  At the time, there was an exchange of fire between soldiers and Palestinian gunmen, witnesses said.

Hook and several other U.N. officials were in a U.N. small compound, consisting of several mobile homes, near the fugitive's hideout, said Sami Mshasha, a U.N. spokesman.

The U.N. officials in the camp were on the phone, trying to arrange their safe evacuation, when Hook was killed, Mshasha said.  "Several bullets hit the trailer and hit him," Mshasha said.

Israeli military officials confirmed exchanges of fire in Jenin.  The army said it was not clear yet whether the U.N. official was killed by Israeli or Palestinian fire, and that the incident was under investigation.
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