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Israeli Forces Storm Palestinian Hebron, Destroy Sniper Buildings

By Tracy Wilkinson
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- JERUSALEM

Israeli armor briefly stormed into Palestinian-ruled territory late Thursday, this time taking over hillside neighborhoods in Hebron in apparent retaliation for gunfire directed at Jewish enclaves, witnesses said.

Troops occupied Abu Sneineh and other neighborhoods and destroyed two houses that had been used frequently by snipers before pulling out after three hours, an army spokeswoman said early Friday.

The late-night incursion marked a foray into one of the region’s tensest hot spots. Since a 1997 agreement, Hebron has been divided between more than 100,000 Palestinians and about 450 Jews.

Abu Sneineh has been an especially potent symbol for hard-line Israelis who have repeatedly demanded the government seize the neighborhood, especially since the slaying in March of a Jewish baby in Hebron. Palestinian gunmen in Abu Sneineh often target Jewish residents and trade fire with the Israeli army posted to protect the settlers. In turn, Israeli clamps harsh restrictions on the larger Palestinian population.

On Thursday evening, two Hebron settlers were wounded by Palestinian gunfire as they stood on their balcony: an 11-year-old boy, who was shot in the stomach, and his 18-year-old brother, a soldier on leave.

Palestinian journalists in Hebron reported seeing at least 15 armored personnel carriers and military vehicles plunging more than 200 yards into the area of the city under Palestinian control.

Residents said Israeli forces had taken over three sections of Hebron that most directly overlooked Jewish enclaves. Jamal Ash-Shobaki, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and resident of Hebron, said he heard gun battles throughout the night but that the firing subsided about an hour after the Israeli armor moved in.

“This is an attempt to kill all agreements,” he said when reached by telephone during the incursion. “I suspect the Israelis will stay a few hours and then leave. It would be very complicated to remain among so many Palestinian people.”

He said the Abu Sneineh neighborhood often clears out in the evening because of the near-nightly shootings. Residents had either fled or were hunkered down in their homes for safety, he said.

Brig. Gen. Tariq Zeid, commander of Palestinian police in Hebron, said in a telephone interview that Israeli helicopters had fired to provide backup to the armored ground forces. He reported that eight Palestinians were wounded in gun battles.

Israeli tanks earlier in the day plowed into Palestinian territory near a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip and destroyed a police post in retaliation for mortar fire at Jewish settlements.

Such incursions, combined with targeting and killing suspected militants, gunmen and bombers, have become the most public -- and, Israel says, successful -- tactics in efforts to crush a Palestinian revolt that has raged nearly 11 months and claimed hundreds of lives. The Palestinians are fighting to end Israeli occupation and obtain an independent state.

Also Thursday, Israel fired missiles at the car of a prominent activist in Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement. But for the second time in two days, the shooters missed their target.

And an 11-year-old Palestinian boy, Mahmoud Zourab, was shot and killed as he threw stones during a clash with Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip following the funeral of a Palestinian slain a day earlier, Palestinian witnesses said.