BETHLEHEM, West Bank – Israeli troops reoccupied Bethlehem on 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 bus bombing, the Israeli military was expected to stick to tried methods, such as hunting militants and demolishing homes of terror suspects.
Expelling Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, an option previously raised by hard-liners in the Israeli Cabinet, was not discussed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz in consultations Thursday.
Sharon said Friday that Israel would show no mercy to militants. "Anyone who harms Israel, a little or a lot, will have his hand chopped off," Sharon said, using a biblical phrase.
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 police said the Jerusalem bus bombing was carried out jointly by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Both groups claimed responsibility, but neither called it a joint attack.
The bomber, 22-year-old Nael Abu Hilail from Bethlehem, blew up 11 pounds of explosives strapped to his waist on a Jerusalem city bus that carried youngsters on their way to school. Among those killed were seven adults and four youths, ages 8, 13 and 16.
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 gunmen from seeking refuge there. In the April offensive, gunmen hid in the shrine, leading to a monthlong standoff with Israeli soldiers.
Troops blew up the Bethlehem house rented by Abu Hilail's family — an Israeli measure meant to discourage suicide attacks and punish bombers' families. Fatima Abu Hilail, the bomber's mother, said the army arrested her husband.
"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.
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.
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. By daybreak Friday, 20 people had been arrested.
Troops in jeeps cruised through empty streets, following maps with the houses of wanted Palestinians marked. Detained Palestinians were blindfolded, their hands bound with plastic handcuffs, and loaded into armored personnel carriers.
In one raid, troops moved through an olive grove and surrounded 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.
Israel pulled troops out of Bethlehem in August after a two-month occupation.
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.