- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 18, 2001

JERUSALEM — Israeli helicopter gunships killed four Islamic militants in the West Bank yesterday as fighting between Israel and the Palestinians surged to its highest point since last month's U.S.-brokered truce.
The helicopter strike, a day after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed two Israelis, prompted a Palestinian mortar attack on Gilo, a neighborhood of Jerusalem extending into the West Bank.
No one was hurt in that attack, but Israel described it as a "grave escalation" because it was the first time Palestinians used mortars in the West Bank.
Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer canceled a visit to the United States because of the latest carnage. He asked Secretary of State Colin L. Powell by phone to pressure Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to halt the violence, Israel's Channel Two television reported.
Israeli security sources said the men killed in Bethlehem by the helicopter strike had been planning an attack on athletes participating in the Maccabiah games, known as the Jewish Olympics, which opened on Monday.
The sources said two of the four were top activists in the militant Hamas group, long wanted by Israel.
But Palestinians described the helicopter strike as an act of "state-sponsored terrorism" and vowed to take revenge.
A leaflet issued by 14 Palestinian factions threatened to target "every soldier and every settler" in the West Bank.
Witnesses said the Israeli helicopters approached Bethlehem — the historic birthplace of Jesus — from the West and fired several rockets at a one-story farm building where the four men had gathered.
The strike obliterated the cinder-block building, leaving behind a scattering of rubble, smeared blood and body parts.
"It was a huge explosion," witness Mohammed Dahllalah said outside the one-story building where pigeons were bred for sale.
Dead birds and mangled cages littered the ground. Hospital officials said 10 persons were wounded in the blast.
Palestinians say Israel has assassinated more than 40 Palestinian activists since the uprising erupted in the West Bank and Gaza in September.
Israel halted the targeted killings briefly, after CIA chief George J. Tenet mediated a truce between the two sides last month, but two weeks ago resumed the policy, which was condemned by both the United States and the European Union.
Israel described the targeted killings as a defense measure taken after Palestinian authorities failed to arrest bombers and other militants in areas under their jurisdiction.
"I think what happened today in Bethlehem is a massacre against Palestinian civilians," said Marwan Barghouthi, a West Bank leader from Mr. Arafat's Fatah faction.
Hours later, a mortar shell fired by Palestinians slammed into the yard of a building under construction in Gilo, one of the areas hardest hit by Palestinian shooting attacks during 10 months of fighting.
Palestinians have fired scores of mortars at Jewish communities in and around the Gaza Strip but until yesterday had refrained from using the weapon in the West Bank.
The mortars have wounded a small number of Israelis but have had a major psychological effect. Most were manufactured by Palestinians in makeshift laboratories, but Israeli officials said the one that hit Gilo had been stolen from an Israeli army depot.
The mortar attack precipitated more violence, including a protracted firefight between Israeli soldiers in Gilo and Palestinian gunmen in the village of Beit Jala across the valley.
Avi Pazner, an Israeli government spokesman, said Israel held Mr. Arafat's Palestinian Authority responsible for the Gilo attack because the mortar bomb was launched from territory under its control.
"We will have to respond," Mr. Pazner told Reuters news agency. "How and when, we will decide."
At least 485 Palestinians and 128 Israelis have died since the fighting erupted. Several attempts by the United States to broker an end to the violence have failed.
In Jerusalem, a few hundred Palestinians held a memorial ceremony for Palestinian official Faisal Husseini, despite an Israeli order banning the service.
Sheik Husseini, who died last month of a heart attack, had been the PLO leader most closely identified with the Palestinian struggle for East Jerusalem.
Israeli officials, seeking to prevent Palestinians from turning the event into a political show of force, had police block roads around the PLO headquarters in East Jerusalem, known as Orient House.
Minor scuffling erupted between police and Palestinians trying to make their way to the gathering. Several Western diplomats attended the ceremony, showing their diplomat cards to cross police lines.
Israel captured East Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and Gaza, in the 1967 Middle East war.

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