- The Washington Times - Friday, November 22, 2002

BETHLEHEM, West Bank Israeli forces entered the West Bank town of Bethlehem early today in retaliation against the hometown of a Palestinian suicide bomber who blew up a bus in Jerusalem, killing 11 and wounding dozens.

The first Israeli forces entered Bethlehem from the south, witnesses said, and surrounded the Dheisheh refugee camp next to the town. The biblical town is just south of Jerusalem.

It was just the latest Israeli incursion into the town. Israeli forces have carried out air and ground raids often during 26 months of Palestinian-Israeli violence, taking full control of Bethlehem twice before.

Troops headed for Manger Square to cut off the Church of the Nativity, which marks the traditional birthplace of Jesus, said Israeli military spokesman Doron Spielman.

The army ordered residents of about 30 houses in el-Khader, on the outskirts of Bethlehem, to leave their homes so the army could take up positions, residents said.

The army confirmed soldiers were operating in el-Khader, and an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Raanan Gissin, said the Israeli Cabinet had decided the army would carry out a "pinpoint operation."

The militant Islamic groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas both claimed responsibility for yesterday morning's bomb attack, the first attack in Jerusalem since August. Mr. Gissin said Hamas would be the group targeted.

Hamas has participated in talks with Egypt and Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement to negotiate a freeze on Palestinian attacks at least until Israel's Jan. 28 election. A first round of talks in Cairo ended inconclusively.

A continuation of bombings and shootings is expected to strengthen Israel's conservative parties going into the elections.

Among the dead in yesterday's bombing were four children two 13-year-olds, an 8-year-old boy who died along with his grandmother, and a 16-year-old boy whose mother also was killed.

Hodaya Asaraf, an eighth-grader at a Jerusalem arts school, was the first to be buried. Shortly after sunset, the 13-year-old was laid to rest at a hilltop cemetery amid the wails of her mother.

"Her friends said the last thing she drew were leaves," said a teacher, Chena Ben-Yaakov. "The leaf has fallen."

Passengers and police said the bomber boarded bus No. 20 and detonated the explosives belt at about 7:10 a.m., as the bus was stopped in Jerusalem's Kiryat Menachem neighborhood, police said.

The blast blew out the bus windows and sent glass shards and body parts flying. Hours later, a man's arms dangled from a broken bus window and a torso was covered with a blue-and-white checkered blanket.

The bus was jammed with high school students, soldiers and the elderly when the bomb exploded.

"Suddenly, it was black and smoky. There were people on the floor. Everything was bloody. There was glass everywhere and body parts," said Maor Kimche, 15, who was among the passengers.

The 10th-grader jumped out of a bus window and was scooped up by a taxi driver who took him to Hadassah Hospital, where he was treated for a leg injury.

He said he will ride buses again. "How else will I get to school?" he asked.

Eleven persons were killed and at least 48 wounded, eight of them seriously. Israeli radio said many of the casualties were students, though hospital officials declined to give a breakdown.

Israeli police identified the bomber as Nael Abu Hilail, 23. Several of his friends said he was a supporter of Islamic Jihad.

President Bush condemned the bombing, saying the goal of the United States is to see two independent states Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace.

Mr. Gissin, the Sharon adviser, accused the Palestinian Authority of assisting the attackers and said that with such violence it seemed futile to bring about a limited truce and withdraw from some Palestinian areas.

"All our efforts to hand over areas and all the talk about a possible cease-fire, that was all window dressing because on the ground there was a continuous effort to carry out as many terrorist activities [as possible]," Mr. Gissin said.

Israel's new Labor Party leader, Amram Mitzna, repeated his pledge that if elected prime minister, he would fight terror, but would also disengage from the Palestinian territories. Mr. Mitzna has said he would pull settlers and soldiers out of the Gaza Strip and would restart negotiations with the Palestinians unconditionally.

"It's very hard, to stand on this stage when those killed by terror are being buried," he told a Labor Party conference. "It is natural that a person feels revenge, hate, to hurt them, but we, a chosen leadership, must look past the horizon and offer Israeli citizens another reality."

Palestinian leaders have welcomed Mr. Mitzna's call although they have stopped short of endorsing him, apparently for fear of hurting Mr. Mitzna's chances.

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