- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 30, 2001

BEIT JALLA, West Bank Israeli troops withdrew early today from the Palestinian town of Beit Jalla after a two-day incursion, the longest in 11 months of fighting. Fierce gun battles erupted elsewhere in the West Bank, and two Palestinians a gunman and a doctor were killed by Israeli fire.
Twenty-six Palestinians were wounded, doctors said.
Also today, a 60-year-old Israeli man was killed in a restaurant in a Palestinian village as he waited for his food to be served. The man, who was friendly with the restaurant owner, was shot in the head by a masked man, witnesses said.
The Israeli pullback from Beit Jalla was the result of intense Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy over the telephone, with help from U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and European Union officials.
Israeli tanks and jeeps left the town just before dawn. After daybreak, residents gathered in the streets in celebration. Masked gunmen shot in the air, and women clapped and cheered. One gunman wearing a ski cap had ammunition belts draped across his chest and fired bursts from a machine gun.
Israeli tanks and troops entered Beit Jalla on Tuesday, following massive Palestinian shooting from there at Gilo, a nearby Jewish neighborhood built on land won in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed to Jerusalem.
Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said troops would remain near Beit Jalla, but stopped short of threatening another raid if shooting resumed. He said he hoped Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would keep his word that Gilo would not come under fire again.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who helped broker the pullback, said that once calm was restored in the Jerusalem area, he could begin talks on a comprehensive truce with Mr. Arafat next week.
Israel's presence in Beit Jalla marked the longest incursion into Palestinian territory since the fighting began. The United States had sharply criticized the raid, and the withdrawal highlighted the limitations Israel faces when responding to Palestinian attacks. The incursion won broad support among Israelis, but critics said that in the long run it weakened Israel's deterrence.
As calm returned to Beit Jalla and Gilo, heavy gunbattles erupted today in Hebron in the southern West Bank. Palestinians opened fire on Israeli troops after the funeral of a captain in the Palestinian security forces who was killed by Israeli fire a day earlier.
Taking cover behind buildings, several dozen gunmen and Palestinian police officers fired at Israeli tanks positioned in Israeli-controlled areas of the divided city. One armed Palestinian crouched on the ground as bullets hit the street nearby.
Witnesses said an Israeli tank drove into a Palestinian area of the city. The army said the tank fired a shell, but denied it entered a Palestinian neighborhood.
At one point, a 50-year-old Palestinian doctor was killed as he tried to run from the fighting and retrieve his car. Seventeen people were wounded, including four who were in serious condition, Palestinian doctors said.
A gunfight also broke out near the Nur Shams refugee camp in the northern West Bank. A Palestinian gunman was killed and nine people were wounded, hospital officials said.
Palestinian witnesses said Israelis fired machine guns from helicopters during the fighting, but the army would not comment on the use of helicopters.
Earlier in the day, soldiers had opened fire on a group of Palestinians on the outskirts of the camp. Two men, members of the militant Islamic Jihad group, were wounded in what Palestinians said was a targeted Israeli attack.
The army said soldiers opened fire on Palestinians trying to plant a bomb.
Also today, Israeli troops barred a convoy with senior U.N. officials, led by Peter Hansen, commissioner of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, from passing a roadblock in the Gaza Strip. Mr. Hansen was on his way to the Rafah refugee camp where 14 homes were demolished by Israeli army bulldozers a day earlier.
Israeli troops have been blocking the main access road to Rafah since yesterday, with a tank parked across it and more armored vehicles positioned nearby. When the five-car U.N. convoy, accompanied by journalists, approached the roadblock today, Israeli troops did not let it pass.
Mr. Hansen got out of his vehicle wearing a bulletproof jacket with a U.N. insignia. A soldier atop the tank shouted at him in English: “Go back immediately, or we are going to shoot.'' The U.N. convoy eventually turned back, and Mr. Hansen said it would try to reach Rafah on back roads.
The army said a permit was eventually granted to the convoy to pass, but that by then it had already left.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Arafat's convoy passed along that road, with his armored limousine weaving through the barriers. Arafat was en route to Durban, South Africa, to attend a U.N. conference on racism.


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