- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 30, 2002

HEBRON, West Bank Israeli troops searched yesterday through heaps of smashed concrete and metal, but found no sign of several wanted Palestinians who Israel said may have escaped massive explosions at the Palestinian headquarters in Hebron.
Many Palestinians doubt the men were even inside when the four-day siege ended at a government and security compound early yesterday, maintaining Israel only wanted to deliver another blow to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's administration.
Two explosions threw cars into the air, tossing them over ledges, tipping some on end, and wiping away the hilltop building used in the past as a base for British, Jordanian and Israeli forces.
Broken satellite dishes, water tanks, blankets and metal window frames were strewn over an area the size of a city block. Two bulldozers pushed through the piles of rubble.
Israeli officials said weapons and ammunition had been found. Soldiers took an AK-47 assault rifle found in the debris and carried out some rolled documents.
International observers videotaped the work and interviewed area residents, who were cleaning up shattered glass and picking pieces of metal pipes out of flower beds 150 yards away. Dust and shattered glass coated classrooms, desks and textbooks in a Japanese-funded elementary school nearby.
In its statement after the first explosion, the army said it had rigged the four-story building to blow in the area where the wanted men were hiding. Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz, an army spokesman, said that although no bodies had been found, the army remained convinced the wanted men had been inside.
"There are two possibilities: No one is there and they proceeded to escape, or maybe there are some bodies under there," he said. "Right now, we don't believe there are bodies there."
Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestinian Preventive Security in the West Bank, said that "as far as we know, no one was inside" at the time of the explosions.
Army troops surrounded the Hebron compound early Tuesday as part of a West Bank military offensive that has confined some 700,000 Palestinians to their homes while soldiers search the West Bank for Palestinians suspected of links to deadly attacks on Israelis. The open-ended campaign, prompted by a pair of suicide bombings that killed 26 Israelis, began a week and a half ago.
For nearly four days, the army pounded the concrete-and-stone building in Hebron with machine-gun and missile fire and punched holes in the ground floor with bulldozers. Brief breaks were used to try to get the men to surrender.
More than 100 Palestinians, many of them police officers, came out of the building Tuesday and Wednesday. The army said it arrested about 20 wanted men and let the rest go.
Former Palestinian Cabinet minister Talal Sidr went in later to negotiate a surrender and left after half an hour, unable to find anyone to negotiate with.
Meanwhile, Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told a gathering of his Labor Party yesterday that 10 illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank will be dismantled in the next 24 hours.
Earlier in the week, Mr. Ben-Eliezer vowed to remove 20 of the hilltop outposts, even if he had to send in the army to forcibly remove the Israeli settlers.
The Defense Ministry must approve any new settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip lands Israel occupied in the 1967 war and that Palestinians want for a future independent state. The illegal outposts have never received government approval.


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