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Israel sends tanks into Bethlehem after soldier killed there

Updated:

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) _ Israeli forces tightened their grip Wednesday on Bethlehem, with tanks patrolling the streets for the first time in months after a Palestinian sniper killed an Israeli army officer near the Church of the Nativity.

In other overnight violence, Israeli soldiers shot and killed an 8-year-old Palestinian boy in the West Bank and two armed Palestinian infiltrators in the Gaza Strip.

The violence flared as the army kept a tight closure on the West Bank, making it difficult for Palestinian Muslims to move about during the Eid al-Adha holiday. Israel said it tightened travel restrictions _ despite initial intentions to ease them _ due to intelligence warnings that Palestinian militants were planning suicide attacks in Israel.

In Bethlehem, the Palestinian sniper opened fire late Tuesday on an Israeli military jeep on patrol near the church, which marks the traditional birthplace of Jesus. The army said soldiers were checking a suspicious vehicle when a Palestinian fired from a nearby alley and killed the officer.

Palestinian residents said the officer was standing just in front of the church. Bloodstains marked the spot where he fell, and soldiers covered the area with sand early Wednesday.

Shortly after the attack, Israeli soldiers declared a curfew, confining Palestinians to their homes. Two tanks rumbled into the biblical town, heading for Manger Square in front of the church, witnesses said. It was the first time Israeli tanks have been seen in Bethlehem since June.

In mid-June, Israeli forces took control of all West Bank cities and towns, except Jericho, in response to a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings.

They pulled out of Bethlehem briefly during the summer but reoccupied it in November after a suicide bomber from the town blew up a bus in nearby Jerusalem, killing 11 passengers.

However, the Israelis did not send tanks back into Bethlehem in November, reoccupying the town with armored personnel carriers and jeeps instead.

The Israeli military late Tuesday declared Bethlehem a closed military area, banning reporters and other civilians from entering.

In the West Bank town of Qalqiliya, Palestinians said Israeli troops surrounded two houses, searching for militants, and Palestinians threw firebombs at them. The 8-year-old boy was killed and nine other people wounded when soldiers fired back, the Palestinian witnesses said.

The Israeli military confirmed that soldiers shot at Palestinians who threw firebombs at them, but gave no information on casualties.

In the northern Gaza Strip, troops shot and killed two Palestinians trying to breach a fence surrounding the Jewish settlement of Dugit, the army said, adding that knives and hand grenades were found on the bodies. A military spokesman said shots were also fired at a third man, but soldiers were still searching the area to find out if he had been hit.

In the West Bank, troops arrested 25 wanted Palestinians in overnight raids in several areas, the army said.

Israeli and Palestinian officials have been meeting recently in another attempt to end fighting that is now in its 29th month.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met last week with a top aide of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, marking Sharon's first direct contacts with top-level Palestinian officials in about a year.

Israel is proposing a phased cease-fire arrangement under which it would pull out of some West Bank towns, with Palestinian security forces taking control.

The formula has been tried in the past _ including in Bethlehem _ but has failed to take hold.

Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, the commander of Israel's army, said contacts with Palestinians at local levels are frequent.

Israel accuses Arafat of encouraging Palestinian attacks, but Yaalon said his involvement was indirect.

``Arafat never deals in planning attacks, but he sends out messages that are translated or understood as a green light for terrorism,'' Yaalon said in an interview with Israeli TV.
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