JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon convened top Cabinet ministers Wednesday after six Israelis were killed in Palestinian attacks, but government officials said they did not expect a dramatic change in Israel's response — brief pinpoint incursions into West Bank towns.
Before daybreak Thursday, Israeli troops entered the West Bank city of Hebron from three directions, Palestinian security officials said.
Israeli military sources said the operation was limited to making arrests. The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the soldiers were expected to withdraw from Hebron later Thursday morning. The sources said that by daybreak, four wanted Palestinians had been arrested.
On Wednesday, the Israelis staged a quick raid on Beitunia, a suburb of Ramallah and were holding Bethlehem and surrounding villages and refugee camps for a fourth day, keeping residents in their homes as they searched for militants, explosives and weapons.
In Beit Sahour, next to Bethlehem, soldiers detained a woman who was "on her way to carry out a suicide bombing attack," the military said, identifying her as 20-year-old Arin Ahmed. Israel Radio said she planned to bomb the Israeli city of Rishon Letzion last week but changed her mind at the last moment. On May 22, a 16-year-old Palestinian blew himself up in Rishon Letzion, killing himself and two Israelis.
The Israelis lifted the curfew in Bethlehem for a few hours Wednesday to allow residents to buy food. Defiant children rode their bicycles in front of the huge tanks.
Firas Ramadan, 12, pedaled a small yellow bike. "I'm not afraid of them," he said. The children paid no attention as soldiers shouted at them in Hebrew: "Go back!"
Lt. Col. Moshe Mada, an Israeli army commander in the region, indicated that the army's stay was not about to end. "As long as we think that we haven't destroyed the terror infrastructure, we will stay there," he told The Associated Press. "We haven't finished yet."
The Palestinian leadership issued a statement denouncing the Israeli incursions, which take place almost nightly. The statement, distributed by the Palestinian news agency Wafa, charged that Israeli forces are "continuing their aggression ... practicing random arrests and humiliating the citizens and firing on residential areas, killing and wounding many civilians."
Near Nablus, soldiers shot and killed an unarmed Palestinian. The military said soldiers thought he was holding a weapon and ordered him to stop, but he fled and was killed when soldiers fired at him. The implement he was holding was a farm tool, the military said.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said the security cabinet, composed of senior ministers, agreed on military steps. He did not elaborate, but Raanan Gissin, a Sharon adviser, said Israel would pursue "the same policies," but "if there is an escalation, we, too, will escalate the use of our means to defend the lives of our citizens."
In funerals around the country on Wednesday, Israelis buried victims of Palestinian attacks — a baby and her grandmother, killed by a suicide bomber in a Tel Aviv suburb Monday, a motorist shot dead in a West Bank highway ambush late Tuesday and three high school students shot by a Palestinian who infiltrated the Jewish settlement of Itamar near the West Bank city of Nablus.
Though the Palestinian leadership has condemned attacks inside Israel, Palestinian Cabinet Secretary Ahmed Abdel Rahman said that does not apply to Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
"The Palestinian people have the complete right to resist the Israeli occupation and settlements in our land," he said.
Peres said the security cabinet discussed the upcoming visits of Assistant Secretary of State William Burns and CIA Director George Tenet, due to arrive and renew hands-on U.S. efforts to defuse 20 months of Palestinian-Israeli violence.
Peres said the ministers agreed there is a window of opportunity for progress, but "we haven't yet made a decision about what exactly the window is and what exactly the opportunity is."
Israel's government is a coalition of hawks and doves, brought together by Sharon as a show of unity in the face of the violence. However, they remain at odds over how to negotiate an end to the conflict.
Labor, represented by Peres and party leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the defense minister, favors far-reaching territorial concessions to the Palestinians for peace, while Sharon's Likud takes a much tougher stance.
In Tuesday night's attack, a Palestinian gunman shot and killed three Israelis — Gilad Steinitz, 14, Avraham Siton, 17, and Netanel Riahi, 17 — at an Orthodox Jewish boarding school in the Itamar settlement.
The attacker was killed by the settlement's security officer and by junior high school principal Nitzan Yamini, a reserve paratroops officer, who told Israeli Army Radio he sleeps with his M-16 assault rifle next to his bed.
Yamini said the gunman began his shooting spree on the school's basketball court. "There were at least six students on the court. He hit three and three managed to run away," he said.
"I charged the terrorist," Yamini said. "I shot him in the head."
The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility.