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Palestinians Blow Up Boat Off Gaza

November 23, 2002

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JERUSALEM (AP) _ Palestinian militants on an explosive-packed boat blew themselves up when intercepted by an Israeli navy patrol off the Gaza Strip on Saturday, wounding four Israeli soldiers, the army and Palestinians said.

The Israeli military closed the Mediterranean waters off Gaza, barring all Palestinian fishing after the attack, defense officials said. The radical group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the blast, saying its two members on the boat were suicide attackers.

The rare seaborne suicide attack came a day after Israeli forces reoccupied the West Bank town of Bethlehem. The occupation was in retaliation after a Palestinian blew himself up on a Jerusalem bus Friday, killing 11 people, four of them children.

As Israeli military vehicles patrolled Bethlehem, enforcing a curfew Saturday, troops in nearby villages blew up the homes of three activists from militias linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction.

In the northern West Bank, the United Nations investigated the death of a U.N aid worker, who was fatally shot during a battle between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen in the Jenin refugee camp on Friday.

Iain Hook, 50, a senior manager for UNWRA, an agency helping Palestinian refugees, was shot as he tried to evacuate a U.N. compound during the fierce clashes. U.N. officials accused Israel of preventing ambulances from quickly reaching Hook, a claim the Israeli military denied.

Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said Israel was ``fully responsible″ for Hook’s death and expressed Arafat’s condolences to Britain and Hook’s family.

U.N. spokesman Sami Mshasha said U.N. investigators were expected to arrive in Jenin later in the day, and that Hook’s body would be taken to Jerusalem for an autopsy in the evening.

In Saturday’s attack, the Palestinian boat entered Israeli-controlled waters off northern Gaza and was approached by an Israeli patrol boat, an army statement said.

When the two people on the boat ignored calls to turn around, the troops sprayed them with water and fired warning shots in the air, the army said. The boat then exploded, wounding three soldiers moderately and a fourth lightly, the army said.

Islamic Jihad said its boat full of explosives rammed the Israeli patrol boat, sinking it, and that an Israeli rescue boat retrieved the four casualties. The army said the patrol boat was damaged but made it back to shore.

In a statement released in Beirut, Islamic Jihad’s military branch, the Al-Quds Brigades, identified its militants on the boat as Jamal Ali Ismail, 21, from al-Breij, and Mohammed Samih al-Masri,19, from Beit Hanoun.

With the incursion in Bethlehem, Israel has retaken control of all Palestinian population centers in the West Bank except Jericho _ mirroring the massive deployment that capped military offensives in April and June.

Israel says it is hunting for 30 wanted militants in and around Bethlehem and seeks to destroy what it calls an infrastructure for recruiting and preparing suicide bombers in the city. So far 22 Palestinians have been arrested since Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers moved into the city at dawn Friday.

In the village of al-Khader near Bethlehem, soldiers on Saturday leveled the house of Walid Sbeh, a militant killed by Israeli troops in June, and destroyed the home of Atef Abayat, who died in October 2001 in a car bomb that Palestinians blamed on Israel.

In Tokoa, to the south, troops demolished the house of Riyad al-Amur, an activist arrested by Israel several months ago. His wife and four children were removed from the house before the explosion.

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