- The Washington Times - Friday, August 29, 2003

JERUSALEM — Palestinian gunmen killed an Israeli settler and seriously wounded his pregnant wife, while Israel’s prime minister suggested that Washington link U.S. aid for Palestinians to a crackdown on armed groups.

Israeli soldiers kept up their hunt for militants, smashing through the walls of houses in Nablus and uprooting orchards in the Gaza Strip apparently used to launch rockets at the Israeli city of Ashkelon.

Hours earlier, an Israeli helicopter in southern Gaza killed a Hamas fugitive driving a donkey cart, the fourth missile strike against members of the Islamic militant group in eight days.

Israel marked all Hamas members for death after 21 persons were killed in an Aug. 19 bus bombing in Jerusalem. Israel says the Palestinian Authority is sabotaging the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan by failing to curb the militants.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told visiting U.S. congressmen that the United States could help by exerting economic pressure on the Palestinians, a senior official in Mr. Sharon’s office said yesterday.

At a meeting Thursday with Republican Reps. Thomas M. Reynolds of New York and Eric Cantor of Virginia, Mr. Sharon suggested tying financial aid to progress in neutralizing the armed groups, according to the official.

The Palestinians are to receive $200 million in U.S. aid in 2003. The U.S. government also made a special payment of $20 million to the Palestinian Authority earlier this year after Yasser Arafat agreed reluctantly to appoint a new prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, who backs the peace plan.

Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib said any reduction in aid would only make Mr. Abbas’ task even more difficult, by creating “fertile ground for the extremist groups.”

The cash-strapped Palestinian Authority has depleted welfare programs during the past three years of fighting. Islamic charities, some suspected of links to Hamas, have increasingly stepped into the breach.

On Thursday, Israel welcomed the Palestinian Authority’s decision to freeze 39 bank accounts of nine charities and investigate whether they channel money to armed groups.

Hamas has denounced the bank freeze, saying it will hurt poor Palestinians.

Responsibility for yesterday’s shooting was taken by another militant group, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is loosely affiliated with Mr. Arafat’s Fatah faction.

Al Aqsa gunmen killed settler Shalom Har-Melech, and seriously wounded his 24-year-old pregnant wife, Limor, causing their vehicle to turn over near the West Bank city of Ramallah.

With doctors concerned the fetus could be harmed, she later gave birth by Caesarean section to a healthy daughter, hospital officials said. Surgeons then operated on her injuries.

In the West Bank town of Jenin, Palestinian gunmen fired on Israeli soldiers manning a lookout in a four-story office building, setting off intense gun battles, residents said.

Eight tanks and armored vehicles moved in and drove back the gunmen with tank-mounted machine guns before picking up the soldiers from the lookout and moving out of the town, witnesses said.

Also yesterday, troops combed the Balata refugee camp on the edge of Nablus, part of a weeklong arrest sweep in the West Bank’s largest city.

In the Gaza Strip, Israeli bulldozers uprooted brush and orchards in Palestinian-controlled areas near the town of Beit Hanoun to deprive those launching rockets of cover, the army said.

In the past week, Hamas fired more than a dozen Qassam rockets at Israeli targets, including one that landed Thursday in an industrial zone just south of Ashkelon, the deepest hit yet. The rockets, with a range of up to six miles, have caused little damage or injury, but Israel considers them a strategic threat.

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