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West Bank feels military squeeze

©Los Angeles Times
August 3, 2002

NABLUS, West Bank -- The Israeli army, using helicopter gunships and more than 100 armored vehicles, shut down this Palestinian city Friday, leaving three people dead in a retaliatory strike after the bombing of a Jerusalem university cafeteria.

Israeli officials said the military operation was also intended to round up local militants and destroy bomb factories in Nablus' Old City. The roundup could take several days as troops make door-to-door searches along the narrow alleyways, which are likely to be lined with booby traps. A spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces said two bomb factories have been discovered and one contained a Kassem rocket, which has a range of about 5 miles.

The military operation came two days after a bomb was detonated inside a crowded Hebrew University cafeteria, killing seven people, five of them Americans. The militant group Hamas said the bombing was in retaliation for an Israeli air attack last week that killed the leader of its military wing and 14 others, including women and children.

In recent days, residents of Nablus, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, have refused to adhere to a strict Israeli-imposed curfew that has been in effect for more than a month. They opened shops and took to the streets, attempting to return to a semblance of normal life despite Israeli sanctions imposed after back-to-back suicide bombings.

But Friday, this city of 135,000 was eerily deserted, save for a few adventurous children who dashed out into the street to play soccer, listening for the sound of approaching Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers.

Armored vehicles surrounded the Old City, and by late afternoon, about 50 Palestinians had been arrested.

In the nearby village of Salem, troops surrounded the home of Hamas activist Amjad Jabur and shot and killed him when he tried to escape, Israeli officials said. At least two other Palestinians were shot to death in the Old City.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat called the Israeli operation "a new massacre" while Israeli spokesman Dore Gold said Nablus had replaced nearby Jenin as a hub for plotting suicide bombings.

At Rafidia Hospital an ambulance arrived carrying the body of a young man who had been shot in the head.

"Look at him," ambulance driver Said Aker said angrily. "He was just sitting in his house. He's wearing his pajamas."

Husam Jawhari, the hospital director, said that in some cases it took more than an hour and a half to get the wounded to the hospital. "People were making telephone calls and begging someone to come help them," he said.

In the Gaza Strip, an 85-year-old Palestinian woman died Friday after being shot by Israeli soldiers who mistook her for a gunman trying to sneak up on an Israeli settlement.

And at a tearful ceremony at Ben Gurion International Airport, the bodies of two of the American victims of the university bomb attack were sent home on a flight to New York. The wooden caskets held the bodies of Benjamin Blutstein, 25, of Susquehanna Township, Pa., and Janis Ruth Coulter, 36, of New York.

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