Israel Stages First Incursion Into Center of Palestinian Town

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In their first incursion into the Palestinian-controlled sector of Hebron, Israeli forces blew up two buildings from which Palestinian gunmen had repeatedly fired at Jewish settlers. The raid triggered fierce gun battles that left 12 Palestinians, including civilians, and one Israeli soldier wounded, witnesses said.

Israeli armored personnel carriers and jeeps, backed by helicopters, drove into the Palestinian neighborhood of Abu Sneineh just hours after Palestinian gunmen fired from the buildings at a Jewish enclave, wounding two Israeli boys, ages 11 and 17.

Israeli army officials said Friday they did not plan to recapture areas of Hebron that are under Palestinian control, but would stage more incursions if Palestinian shooting attacks on Jewish settlers in the city continued.

Hebron has long been considered one of the main flashpoints in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, a city where religious fervor multiplies political differences. It was divided into zones in a 1997 agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, two years after Israel started turning Palestinian population centers over to Palestinian control.

The hilltop Abu Sneineh neighborhood overlooks Hebron's Israeli-controlled downtown area where hundreds of soldiers guard three small settler enclaves that are home to about 500 people. After the wounding of the Israeli boys Thursday evening, Palestinian gunmen and Israeli troops exchanged fire several times.

Around midnight, Israeli paratroopers and paramilitary border police officers entered Abu Sneineh in jeeps and armored personnel carriers, the army said. The army said the move was in response to the shooting of the boys.

It was not clear how many troops participated in the operation.

Dozens of Palestinian gunmen and police officers engaged in a gun battle with the Israeli forces, Palestinian witnesses said.

At one point, Israeli troops also fired machine guns from a helicopter, the army said. The firing from the helicopter was intended as a warning to gunmen to stay away, and soldiers did not take aim at them, the army said.

"The fire came from every direction," said Fayed Abu Atrash, 40, an Abu Sneineh resident. He said he and some of his neighbors took cover in basements.

Another resident, Wadia Al Hariya, said he saw Israeli soldiers on one roof, exchanging fire with Palestinian gunmen three houses away.

According to Palestinian hospital reports, five of the injured were civilians, three were police officers and four were gunmen. Six people remained hospitalized Friday, including a civilian who was shot in the chin and was in critical condition.

The army said one soldier was lightly wounded.

Palestinian gunmen had shot at settler enclaves from the two houses destroyed by the army. One was abandoned and the other still under construction, Palestinian officials said. Pictures taken by Jewish settlers showed explosions destroying the two buildings lighting up the night sky.

Israeli forces remained in Abu Sneineh for about two hours and then withdrew.

After daybreak, Palestinian children climbed over the rubble of one of the buildings, planting Palestinian flags.

Jewish settlers have demanded that the Israeli army recapture Abu Sneineh, saying it has been used for repeated attacks on the Jewish settler enclaves. On Friday, the Settlers' Council, which represents settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, demanding again that Abu Sneineh be retaken.

Brig. Gen. Gershon Yitzhak, the division commander in the West Bank, said the incursion was a "signal that the Israeli army is able to reach those areas," but that Israel did not intend to recapture them.

However, Maj. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, the deputy army chief, said that the military might move back in and remain on the hill. "If the situation becomes unbearable, it's possible that we'll have to stay up there in order to assure that there will be no shooting from that hill," he told Israel radio.

Ahmed Abdel Rahman, the secretary general of the Palestinian Cabinet, said the incursion was a sign that the Israeli government was trying to undermine European-backed truce efforts. "I am sorry to say that the Bush government does not move to stop this aggression," Abdel Rahman added.

In another Israeli operation late Thursday, Israeli forces entered Palestinian territory in Gaza after a mortar shell hit a house at a Jewish settlement. Military chief of staff Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz said soldiers "acted quickly, hitting a Palestinian command post, hitting everyone who was there."

Palestinian security officials said the Israelis destroyed five farms and leveled fruit trees but denied that there were any police posts in the area. They said no one was hurt.

Hebron is the only West Bank city divided into Israeli and Palestinian sections, because of the three Israeli enclaves. The Israeli-controlled area, which is home to 30,000 Palestinians and 500 settlers, makes up about 20 percent of Hebron. The Palestinians in the Israeli sector have been kept under almost constant curfew throughout the fighting. Palestinian police and security patrol the rest of the city.

The settlers, among them many ultra-nationalists, charge that the military has not done enough to stop the gunfire that comes almost daily from Abu Sneineh and other Palestinian vantage points overlooking the Jewish enclaves. In March, a 10-month old Israeli baby was shot and killed.

Palestinians say the settlers frequently attack them and destroy their property. The Palestinians demand that all the settlers be removed.

The Israeli incursion into Hebron appears to have been the largest operation in Palestinian-controlled areas. An Aug. 14 incursion into the West Bank town of Jenin ended after Israeli bulldozers destroyed a police compound.