Israel Razes Dozens of Palestinian Shops in West Bank

Israeli forces staged the biggest demolition in the West Bank in years on Tuesday, destroying 62 shops in a Palestinian village.

Also Tuesday, Israel's Supreme Court relaxed a ban on soldiers using Palestinians as "human shields" or ordering Palestinians to knock on doors of Islamic militants' houses. Human rights advocates denounced the decision.

In Gaza, Palestinians fired rockets at two Jewish settlements, damaging buildings but causing no casualties, settlers and the military said.

In the village of Nazlat Issa, next to the West Bank border with Israel, seven bulldozers guarded by 300 soldiers destroyed shops and market stalls.

Dozens of protesters threw stones at troops, who fired tear gas and rubber-coated steel pellets. Other demonstrators chanted "Down with the occupation."

Israel says the shops were built illegally. The mayor of the village accused Israel of waging war on the Palestinian economy.

The 170-shop market in Nazlat Issa drew many Israeli customers before the outbreak of fighting in September 2000. The market is a main source of income for the village's 2,500 residents, said the mayor, Ziad Salem, adding that Israeli officials informed shop owners the market would be bulldozed.

Israeli troops have demolished hundreds of Palestinian homes, many in the Gaza Strip, in the past 28 months of fighting. In Gaza alone, more than 5,700 Palestinians have been made homeless, according to Palestinian officials. Many of the buildings were razed in military offensives, with Israel saying the structures provided cover for Palestinian gunmen.

Since July, Israel has also demolished dozens of homes of Palestinians involved in bombing and shooting attacks on Israelis. Human rights groups say the demolitions constitute collective punishment, while Israel says they are an important deterrent.

In August, human rights groups had praised a Supreme Court injunction against Israeli soldiers using Palestinians as protection in raids on suspected Islamic militants.

The court on Tuesday amended the ruling to say soldiers could use Palestinians if the Palestinians agree.

There have been numerous Palestinian complaints about Israeli practices that endanger them, and while the military denies using Palestinians as human shields, journalists have documented the practice.

Marwan Dalal, a lawyer for the human rights group Adalah, which argued for continuing the ban, condemned the decision.

"International law prohibits the use of civilians by an occupying power," he said, "and no Palestinian would want to help an occupying power." He also said the judgment of Israeli commanders was not to be trusted.

Meanwhile, two Palestinian photographers were beaten up Tuesday by Israeli border police in the West Bank city of Nablus when they tried to photograph an Israeli jeep with two Palestinian teens clinging to the hood. One of the photographers, Nasser Ishtayeh of The Associated Press, who was not seriously hurt, said it appeared the youths were being used as human shields against rock-throwing youths. The AP complained to the military about the beating. The military said it would check.

In other developments, Israeli police discovered a car carrying a large amount of explosives in the Israeli Arab city of Um el-Fahm, near the line with the West Bank. Three people escaped from the car, which police blew up.

Israeli forces have stepped up patrols and roadblocks in the area, which has been hit frequently by Palestinian bombers.

In Gaza, Palestinians fired several rockets at the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom, damaging buildings but causing no casualties, settlers said.

Meanwhile, an Egyptian effort to bring rival Palestinian factions together in Cairo on Wednesday to negotiate a yearlong end to attacks on Israeli civilians appeared to run aground.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad, responsible for dozens of homicide bomb attacks in Israel, said Tuesday they would not attend the talks. Officials from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement said they were waiting further information. Earlier conferences have ended without agreement.

Egypt hopes a cease-fire declaration would weaken Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's popularity and boost the election chances of opposition leader Amram Mitzna in Jan. 28 elections. Mitzna wants an immediate resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians.