- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2002

JERUSALEM Nineteen Palestinians and six Israelis died yesterday in a relentless current of carnage and retribution, marking one of the fiercest spasms of violence since fighting erupted 17 months ago.
Palestinians sprayed soldiers with gunfire at a checkpoint in the West Bank after Israeli warplanes and tanks pounded the Gaza Strip.
Hours after the attack on the soldiers, Israel launched air and naval strikes on Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat's compound in the Gaza Strip, killing four of his guards and five policemen. Mr. Arafat was in Ramallah at the time, where Israel has kept him hemmed in for more than two months.
The latest bloodletting followed a Palestinian shooting and a bombing on Monday that left four Israelis dead, as well as the two assailants. The combined body count has reached 31 since Monday.
Though Israelis and Palestinians have known higher single-day death tolls, the rapid succession of violent incidents and the absence of any diplomatic initiative on the horizon have made the last few days here seem even gloomier than usual.
"I think this is one of the darkest periods since the fighting started," a Western diplomat said.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was scheduled to convene top Cabinet ministers and security officials early today to decide how Israel would respond to the surge of violence that includes six suicide attacks since late last week.
He was expected to come under pressure from right-wing coalition partners to dismantle the government of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
"I think that we have to get rid of his regime and, thereby, also signal to any future Palestinian leadership that the cost of escalating, of waging terrorism against us would be their own survival and their own regime," said former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who rivals Mr. Sharon for leadership of the Likud Party.
Also yesterday, the spiritual leader of the Islamic militant Hamas group, Ahmed Yassin, in a letter called on Muslims around the world to wage holy war to liberate countries from U.S. influence.
"Sons of Islam everywhere, the jihad is a duty to establish the rule of Allah on earth and to liberate your countries and yourselves from America's domination and its Zionist allies, it is your battle either victory or martyrdom," Mr. Yassin wrote.
Hamas is militantly opposed to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and to American policy in the region.
Almost all the Palestinian shootings and bombings in recent days were aimed at soldiers and Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and not at civilians inside Israel.
Analysts said the distinction might point to a new strategy by Palestinian militants. Attacks on civilians have drawn international condemnation and brought pressure on Mr. Arafat to dismantle armed groups in the West Bank and Gaza, including those associated with his own Fatah movement.
One of the Fatah affiliates, the al Aqsa Brigades, claimed responsibility for the attack on soldiers at the Ein Ariq checkpoint near the West Bank town of Ramallah.
At least four gunmen fired on the squad around 9 p.m., killing six soldiers near or inside a trailer adjacent to the checkpoint. A seventh soldier was wounded in the attack and an eighth one suffered shock but was unharmed, military sources said.
Israeli helicopters hovered over the area for hours after the assault, but the gunmen apparently managed to flee to Palestinian-controlled territory.
It was the third deadly attack on Israeli soldiers in nine days. On Thursday, Palestinians succeeded in blowing up an Israeli tank in the Gaza Strip for the first time since the beginning of fighting in September 2000. Three Israeli soldiers died in the blast, which security sources said was caused by more than 150 pounds of explosives.
The assault on the tank and last night's ambush looked a lot like the kind of attacks that helped Islamic militants drive Israeli troops out of south Lebanon two years ago after an 18-year occupation.
Fatah's armed wing says it similarly aims to expel Israel from the West Bank and Gaza. The difference is that Israel has settled about 200,000 people in these areas since capturing them in the 1967 Middle East War.
Elsewhere in the West Bank, a Palestinian suicide bomber tried to kill Israelis aboard a bus, but the driver forced him off the vehicle.
The bus had left Jerusalem at 5 p.m. and was crossing the West Bank on its way to northern Israel. The bomber boarded near the settlement of Mechola, but his strange conduct aroused bus driver Shlomo Deri's suspicion.
"He was wearing a large jacket, and he had his hand in his pocket. He looked strange. I didn't wait for him to sit down; I just kicked him with my feet right out the door," Mr. Deri told Israeli television.
As the bomber tumbled down the steps of the bus, he set off explosives apparently stuffed in his backpack. The bomber died, but no one aboard the bus was hurt.
The Palestinian attacks followed repeated Israeli air and ground strikes on the Gaza Strip.
Jabalya, a refugee camp near Gaza City, suffered the harshest attack. An Israeli missile fired from a helicopter killed two members of Hamas in their Jabalya office but also wounded children at an adjacent school. Doctors at Jabalya described one of the wounded as a 9-year-old girl and said she was in serious condition.
Three other Palestinians in Gaza and two in the West Bank town of Nablus were killed in early-morning clashes.
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said again yesterday that the onus to halt the violence is on Mr. Arafat.
"The first step remains for Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority to make every effort to arrest terrorists and to dismantle the terrorist organizations that continue to carry out attacks against Israel," Mr. Boucher told reporters.


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