- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 30, 2002

JERUSALEM Israeli forces rolled into Hebron with tanks early yesterday, killing nine Palestinians in retaliation for a lethal attack Saturday on a nearby Jewish settlement.
Hebron, a biblical city with a history of Jewish-Muslim strife, had been the only West Bank city other than Jericho left untouched by Israel's anti-terrorist military operation that began March 29.
In a second assault, Israeli tanks and bulldozers drove into the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, where they destroyed tunnels being used to smuggle arms into the Palestinian territory. A 15-year-old boy was reported wounded.
While Israel moved militarily on the two fronts, its government again postponed the visit of a U.N. fact-finding team for at least one more day.
In response to Israeli demands, the United Nations named two Irish police officers with counterterrorism experience and a French military official to work alongside the political and humanitarian figures already in place.
But the world body rejected Israeli demands that the team members limit their inquiry to events in the West Bank's Jenin refugee camp and allow the government to decide which Israelis may speak to the team.
At least 48 Palestinians died in fierce fighting in Jenin, but Arab accusations of a civilian "massacre" have lost credence as searchers have found few new bodies in the rubble.
The U.N. group has been idle in Geneva since Wednesday, waiting for permission to start work.
Israeli Foreign Ministry adviser Alan Baker told CNN that the new appointments "would certainly help" but said the government was waiting for clarification.
Also yesterday, a Palestinian gunman was killed by Israeli soldiers in the courtyard of the Church of the Nativity. He was reported to have left the church and sprayed the area with bullets.
The shooting was about the only movement in the biblical town, where a curfew remained in place.
No one else left the church, and there was no resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians to end the 26-day standoff.
In Ramallah, a team of U.S. and British diplomats met last night with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to discuss the hand-over of a half-dozen suspected killers for eventual trial in Israeli courts.
Under a deal proposed by the United States on Sunday and quickly accepted by both parties, Mr. Arafat will be allowed to leave the shell-pocked compound once those accused of assassinating Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi are transferred to a Jericho jail under British and U.S. guard.
Diplomats said the jailers could arrive within 48 hours. The Israelis say Mr. Arafat 72 and in poor health after a stressful, monthlong siege would be free to leave afterward.
Israeli soldiers appeared to relish the news that they might soon be leaving as well. Big smiles were seen on many of their faces.
In Hebron, Israeli troops seized 17 persons, along with weapons and explosives, in an incursion that government officials said would not last much longer.
"We did not go there to stay there," said Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. "We went there to damage the terror infrastructure and to leave."
Hebron is home to some of the most militant Jewish settlers in the West Bank. An estimated 400 settlers live in heavily guarded neighborhoods amid more than 120,000 Arabs. In 1996, a Brooklyn-born settler opened fire on Muslims praying in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, ending months of tense quiet in the area.
In yesterday's bloodiest incident, a helicopter-fired missile hit a Hebron home, killing one gunman and four civilians. Two more civilians who rushed to the scene to help were killed by helicopter fire, witnesses told Reuters news agency.
Heavy fighting was also reported in the Rafah camp in Gaza. The Israeli operation was intended to destroy tunnels leading into the Sinai desert, which Israel says have been used to smuggle weapons under a heavily guarded border fence.
A reporter for Agence France-Presse reported watching the Israelis dig holes with bulldozers and set off underground explosions.
Israel's refusal to admit the U.N. fact-finding team to Jenin has begun to inspire criticism and doubts.
The Security Council has met several times to bring pressure on the Israeli government, and Norwegian and British diplomats have called on the government to let the team get to work.
Encouraged by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the Israeli government last week reluctantly agreed to accept the U.N. mission, saying it had nothing to hide.

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