- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 11, 2002

JERUSALEM Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday said his forces have no choice but to continue occupying West Bank cities, in defiance of U.S. demands for a pullout, after another suicide bombing that killed eight Israelis.

"We are in the middle of a battle which, if abandoned prematurely, would only require another round of fighting later on," Mr. Sharon told soldiers at a post overlooking the Jenin refugee camp, the site of the deadliest battle of the 18-month-old Palestinian uprising.

"If we leave, we will have to return," Mr. Sharon said.

The prime minister's remarks came as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, with officials from the European Union, United Nations and Russia, issued a statement in Madrid repeating demands that Israel withdraw.

Mr. Powell, who was due to arrive in Israel tonight, insisted that his peacekeeping mission was not threatened by Mr. Sharon's refusal to halt the incursions. "My mission is not in the least in jeopardy," he told reporters in Spain.

Despite Mr. Sharon's tough talk, the Israeli Defense Ministry announced late yesterday that troops were pulling out of three West Bank villages: Yatta, Qabatya and Samua.

Yatta and Samua are near the southern city of Hebron, which has not been occupied. Qabatya is near the northern city of Jenin, where a day earlier 13 Israeli soldiers died in a Palestinian ambush.

Then early today, Israeli forces and tanks rolled into the central West Bank town of Bir Zeit north of the commercial center of Ramallah and troops quickly occupied the police station and began doing house-to-house searches, witnesses said.

The soldiers met no resistance, they said.

Israeli troops remained in the major West Bank cities of Nablus, Bethlehem and Ramallah, as well as Jenin.

Yesterday began with a suicide attack in which a Palestinian killed eight Israelis by detonating a nail bomb aboard a commuter bus near the Israeli port city of Haifa.

It was the first lethal bombing in nine days and the bloodiest since Israeli troops entered the West Bank 13 days ago. Four of the eight killed were soldiers.

Shortly after 7 a.m. the crowded bus was thrown into the air and body parts were strewn for more than a hundred yards across the highway, witnesses said.

"It was like a hardware store in that bomb," said Dr. Zvi Ben-Ishai, deputy director of the Ramdan Hospital Center, where most of the 14 wounded Israelis were taken.

"The X-rays of the victims are filled with nails, bolts, screws," he said.

The militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for the bombing, and it identified the assailant as Ayman Abu Haija, 22, from the Jenin refugee camp.

It was not clear when he left the camp.

The attack proved especially unsettling to Israelis, who within the past few days had begun to venture out again to such traditional terrorist targets as public squares, shopping malls and commuter buses.

Palestinian officials said yesterday's bombing showed that Israel's military offensive, instead of bringing security to the Jewish state, would only bring more attacks.

"No preventive wall, full-scale war or massacres will afford security for the Israelis," Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, general secretary of the Palestinian Authority, told Reuters news agency.

Israel's Security Cabinet met after yesterday's bombing and affirmed Mr. Sharon's decision to continue the offensive.

In the Jenin camp, dozens of gunmen fired sporadically as Israeli troops advanced with bulldozers.

Later, several hundred camp residents, including armed men, women and children, surrendered to Israeli troops.

An Associated Press photographer driving through the camp saw many building facades with wrecking-ball-size holes from Israeli shelling. Streets were deserted, and there was no sign of Palestinian resistance.

More than 100 Palestinians are believed to have been killed in the Jenin camp, and many bodies remained in the streets.

In Nablus, rescue workers retrieved the bodies of 14 Palestinians, bringing the total dead in the city since the start of the Israeli onslaught to 60. The old city of Nablus, a warren of narrow alleys, had been the scene of fierce battles for days.

On the city's outskirts, Israeli tanks and helicopters shelled the Al Ain refugee camp, damaging some homes.

After daybreak, soldiers with loudspeakers called on teen-age boys and men to come out of their homes, and witnesses saw hundreds of Palestinian men sitting on the ground in front of the mosque.

In Bethlehem, Palestinian gunmen remained holed up in the Church of the Nativity, and an Armenian priest was shot by a sniper and seriously wounded.

It was not clear last night which side shot Father Mahir Arman, who was one of an estimated four dozen religious figures holed up inside the church with more than 100 Palestinian fighters.

The Israelis and Palestinian blamed each other for the shooting, as well as the nine-day standoff at the site where Jesus is believed to have been born.

The military earlier this week withdrew from smaller cities of Qalqilya and Tulkarm, while maintaining or increasing its strength in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jenin and Nablus.

Also yesterday, Lebanese guerrillas fired more than a dozen rockets and mortars at the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights and northern Israel in one of the most extensive attacks since Israel withdrew from Lebanon nearly two years ago. Israeli warplanes fired missiles at suspected guerrilla positions.

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