ADDITIONAL Israeli forces take up West Bank positions; 4 Palestinians buried in Bethlehem

Wednesday, July 18th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) _ Extra Israeli soldiers, tanks and military vehicles took up new positions Wednesday in the West Bank, beefing up their presence around Palestinian towns as tension and violence escalate.

Relatives and masked, armed comrades mourned four Palestinians killed Tuesday in an Israeli assassination strike, including the target, Omar Saadeh. Israel says the Bethlehem-area Hamas military leader was plotting a major terror attack.

After friends and relatives kissed the bodies wrapped in green Hamas flags, young men carried them on stretchers through Bethlehem streets. Thousands followed; some sobbed, others chanted anti-Israeli slogans and shouted ``Revenge, Revenge!'' Israeli flags were set ablaze in the city, which was observing a general strike.

Israeli officials denied the troop reinforcements were part of a plan to launch a major assault or reoccupy land under Palestinian control. Israeli media have reported that the military has drawn up such plans and the new troops raised Palestinian concerns.

``Contrary to the reports we don't intend to reconquer, so to speak, the territories,'' Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said in London, where he arrived for talks with British leaders.

Raanan Gissin, a top aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, called the reports ``absolute nonsense,'' saying the new forces were ``intended as a deterrent.''

Additional soldiers arrived at existing West Bank checkpoints early Wednesday. Others took up positions along roads, stopping and searching passing cars. No figures were available on the size of the buildup, made public late Tuesday by Israeli military sources.

Many Palestinians traveling from Bethlehem to Jerusalem bypassed the crowded checkpoint on foot, taking dirt paths skirting the main road. Black smoke rose from a burning tire _ a common sign of Palestinian annoyance with Israeli measures _ on the Bethlehem side of the checkpoint.

In an often-tense area surrounding Gilo, an Israeli neighborhood on disputed land near Jerusalem, more military vehicles pulled up behind concrete barriers on the hillside overlooking the Palestinian town of Beit Jalla. After the assassination Tuesday, Palestinians fired two mortar shells toward Gilo _ the first mortar fire in the West Bank in nearly 10 months of violence.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat condemned the Israeli military buildup on arriving in Cairo, Egypt, for a meeting of Arab foreign ministers: ``What is happening now with Israeli escalation shows their intention to continue their aggression.''

Violence of the past few days, including a suicide bombing that killed two Israelis and the Israeli assassination strike, have left in tatters the always wavering cease-fire negotiated last month by CIA chief George Tenet.

Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, general secretary of the Palestinian Cabinet urged the international community to act quickly to get the cease-fire back on track.

``The Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority will defend themselves against the Israeli aggression, and we will not be terrorized by the additional Israeli tanks or gunships or the increasing number of soldiers,'' Abdel-Rahman added.

Israel's security Cabinet, led by Sharon, met Wednesday and agreed on ways to prevent Palestinians from crossing into Israel in areas near larger West Bank towns that border Israeli territory. Gissin said measures would include additional monitoring, patrols and sniffer dogs and perhaps electronic sensors.

Targeted killings of Palestinian militants suspected of plotting terror attacks also is part of Israel's effort to prevent strikes inside Israeli territory. The four Palestinians being buried Wednesday were killed by helicopter missile fire at the cinderblock chicken coop where they were gathered in Bethlehem.

Military sources said Saadeh was planning an attack for next week's closing ceremony of the Maccabiah Games, the Jewish Olympics that opened Monday.

Nasser Ahmed, a 36-year-old mourner, said Israel is escalating the conflict through such assassinations. ``These four martyrs are my neighbors and friends and Israel caused me to lose them,'' Ahmed said.

Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer defended the strike, saying ``Hamas (activists) who in the past were responsible for many attacks ... came to the end of their road.''

In the Gaza Strip, two mortars were fired Wednesday at a Jewish settlement and two more at the Netzarim junction, the army said. There were scattered gunfire exchanges in the West Bank, the army said. There were no reports of casualties.

In fighting since Sept. 28, 521 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 128 on the Israeli side.