JERUSALEM – Israeli troops hunting the killer of five Israelis, including a mother and her two young sons, swept through this West Bank town and an adjacent refugee camp Tuesday, demolishing the home of a local Palestinian militia leader and arresting three wanted men.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat denied Tuesday that his Fatah movement was involved in last weekend's attack on Kibbutz Metzer, an Israeli communal farm near the West Bank. The gunman was sent by the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a militia linked to Fatah which Israel says is largely funded by Arafat. He escaped after the shooting.
The Israeli military did not say whether the attacker was caught in Tuesday's sweep. Many Al Aqsa members have gone into hiding, anticipating Israeli reprisals.
Also Tuesday, about 2,000 mourners buried 2-year-old Nafez Mashal from the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Witnesses said the toddler was killed by Israeli army fire from a nearby outpost while he was playing ball with other boys.
The Israeli army denied troops targeted children. It said soldiers came under fire and responded.
The boy's father, Khaled, said he witnessed the shooting and that it was unprovoked. "I will never forget his (Nafez') smile while he was playing, before he got shot," he said. Two other boys, ages 8 and 14, were moderately wounded.
In the past two years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, 1,921 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 651 people on the Israeli side.
The attack on Kibbutz Metzer stunned Israelis, even though there have been scores of shootings and bombings by Palestinian militants since Sept. 2000. The gunman slipped into the kibbutz and fatally shot five people before escaping.
"Without mercy," read a headline in the Yediot Ahronot daily above a picture showing the two young victims, 4-year-old Noam Ohion and his 5-year-old brother Matan, splashing in a bathtub.
Newspapers said the body of the boys' mother, Revital, 34, was riddled with bullets, apparently because she had tried to shield her children as the gunman burst into their room. Just moments earlier, after hearing shots in the kibbutz, she had placed a call to her ex-husband, Avi.
"I answered the phone and all I could hear were the screams of terror of my little children, Matan and Noam," Ohion said.
Arafat said Fatah was not involved in the attack. "It's not from Fatah," he said. "This is not the first time for me to be blamed for such an action. You should not forget that we have condemned it immediately in an official condemnation."
The attack came as Fatah was trying to persuade the Islamic militant group Hamas to halt attacks on civilians in Israel. Unconfirmed reports said the two sides are discussing a proposal that Hamas stop attacks for a year and in exchange be allowed to participate in parliamentary elections set for Jan. 20.
Arafat said Tuesday the vote would go ahead as planned. "Our friends in the international community will provide us with all the facilities to have our elections on time," Arafat said.
However, Palestinian officials have said the elections would only take place if Israel first withdraws troops from Palestinian population centers — an unlikely event considering the renewed tensions and the possibility of a major Israeli military operation in the West Bank city of Nablus, the base of the Al Aqsa militia.
Israeli officials have said they believe the gunman in the kibbutz attack came from Tulkarem and that he received his orders from the Al Aqsa leaders in the West Bank city of Nablus, seen as the next likely target of a major Israeli strike.
In responding to the attack, Israel's options appeared limited. The United States wants to avoid a further escalation in the region at a time when it is preparing for a possible attack on Iraq and needs the support of the Arab world.
The Israeli daily Haaretz, citing senior Israeli military officials, reported Tuesday that the United States has drawn clear guidelines for Israeli retaliation. According to the rules, Israel must not expel Arafat or besiege his Ramallah headquarters and must avoid operations that exert undue pressure on Palestinian civilians, the daily said. Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv declined comment.
Israeli troops reoccupied most West Bank towns, including Nablus and Tulkarem, in June to track down militants and prevent attacks on Israelis. Since then, the military has eased or intensified its presence, sometimes enforcing curfews, sometimes lifting them, and occasionally withdrawing to the outskirts of a town.
Immediately after the Metzer attack, troops returned to Tulkarem and enforced a curfew. At about 3 a.m. Tuesday, dozens of jeeps and armored vehicles swept through the town and the adjacent refugee camp, with soldiers searching for Al Aqsa fugitives.
In Tulkarem, the military demolished the home of a local Al Aqsa leader, Mohammed Naefa, who the army said orchestrated the attack. Naefa, 24, is also believed to have carried several shooting attacks on Israeli settlers and soldiers in the area. He was still at large, the army said.
The army said troops began withdrawing several hours later, after arresting three wanted Palestinians.
Israeli commentators suggested that Nablus would be targeted in a future strike. The new operation would be more extensive, following the model of Jenin where troops have been searching homes and arresting suspects for the past two weeks.