AP, Nov. 22, 2002
Israeli troops reoccupied Bethlehem early Friday, searching homes and deploying tanks outside the Church of the Nativity after 11 bus passengers, including four youngsters, were killed in a Jerusalem suicide bombing.
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 Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist groups. The bomber, 22-year-old Nael Abu Hilail from Bethlehem, blew up 5 kilograms of explosives strapped to his waist while riding 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.
Early Friday, Israeli armored vehicles rolled into Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem. Three tanks and armored personnel carriers were deployed outside the Church of the Nativity, Christianity’s holiest shrine, to prevent a repeat of what happened in the April offensive, when gunmen sought shelter there, leading to a month long standoff with Israeli soldiers.
Army officials said the Israeli presence 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.
Troops imposed a curfew on Bethlehem, the nearby towns of Beit Jalla and Beit Sahour, as well as the Dheisheh refugee camp. Lt. Col. Guy Hasson, a senior commander, said soldiers were searching for 30 Palestinians involved in Thursday’s attack and other bombings. In one raid, troops moved through an olive grove surrounding a one-story house. Soldiers banged on the door. An elderly man in a bathrobe and a man in his 20s came out.
Soldiers ordered the young man to lift his windbreaker and place his hands on a wall before leading him off to other houses.
It was not immediately clear whether the young man was on Israel’s wanted list or being ordered to serve as a “human shield” in knocking on doors of neighbors, a practice outlawed by Israel’s Supreme Court.
Israel pulled troops out of Bethlehem in August after a two-month occupation as part of a large-scale Israeli invasion in the West Bank that followed earlier suicide bombings in Jerusalem.
In Jerusalem, five of the victims of the bus bombing were laid to rest Thursday evening. First was Hodaya Asraf, an 8th grader at a Jerusalem arts school. “Her friends said the last thing she drew were leaves,” said a teacher, Chena Ben-Yaakov, who attended the funeral. “The leaf has fallen.”