Militant Leader Killed in West Bank
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JERUSALEM (AP) _ A senior member of the militant Islamic Jihad group was killed in an overnight army operation in the West Bank on Saturday, Israeli security sources said.
Iyad Sawalha died during an exchange of gunfire at his house in the town of Jenin. Israel has accused Sawalha of orchestrating attacks that killed 31 Israelis.
The operation came as Palestinian groups were to meet over the weekend in Cairo to discuss ending attacks inside Israel, officials from Fatah, Yasser Arafat’s movement, said.
A Fatah delegation plans to demand that the militant group Hamas restrict attacks to Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, instead of all Israelis, a senior Fatah official said Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Jenin operation was a joint exercise between the Israeli security service and army, Israeli security sources said on condition of anonymity. They tracked Sawalha to a house in Jenin _ his home was demolished by troops in August _ and called for him to come out. Only his wife came out of the building.
Next-door neighbor Soha Ekmel, who was up early to prepare for Suhur _ the morning meal before the day-long fast for the holy month of Ramadan _ said troops entered her home and took her husband, Khaled.
``They told his (Sawalha’s) wife to tell him to come out. I heard her say ‘Iyad, please come out, they’re threatening to kill me if you don’t.’ There was no answer, and they asked Khaled to do the same,″ Ekmel told The Associated Press. The army would not comment on the report.
At one point Sawalha lobbed a hand grenade toward the troops, lightly injuring two soldiers. After a drawn-out gunbattle Sawalha was shot and killed. Sawalha’s wife and Khaled Ekmel were taken away, Soha Ekmel said.
The army said Sawalha was responsible for two suicide attacks, one in June, a bus bombing that killed 17 Israelis, and another last month, when two teenagers drove a car laden with explosives into a bus in northern Israel, killing 14 Israelis.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat criticized the operation.
``It is a very big crime that was committed through military aggression against our people and against our (religious) holidays,″ Arafat told reporters at his Ramallah headquarters.
Israel reoccupied Jenin almost three weeks ago in a bid to track down militant groups after the Oct. 25 suicide bombing claimed by Islamic Jihad.
Meanwhile, there were disagreements even before the Palestinian talks started in Cairo.
Moussa Abu Marzouk, a member of the Hamas politburo who will lead its delegation, told reporters in Damascus this week that he hoped Fatah would not demand Hamas end its attacks inside Israel. He said the focus should be on ending disputes between the two factions and unifying Palestinians.
The head Fatah delegate said he was hopeful progress would be made.
``This is a very important meeting and we are looking forward to making it successful,″ said Ahmed Ghneim. ``I am optimistic and I think that we can reach an agreement with Hamas.″
Arafat has regularly condemned suicide attacks against civilians inside Israel, while Hamas argues the use of bomb-carrying attackers is necessary because Palestinians have no other effective means against the better-armed Israeli army.
However, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant group with links to Fatah, has carried out several suicide bombings in Israel.
Separately, the Palestinians prepared to submit a written response to a U.S.-backed peace plan next week, officials said. Despite Palestinian reservations, Planning Minister Nabil Shaath said every effort would be made not to ``sabotage″ the latest peace initiative.
The plan calls for sweeping Palestinian reforms, an Israeli troop pullback, a freeze in Jewish settlement construction and a provisional Palestinian state by 2003, followed by full independence in 2005.
Arafat said Israel could not afford to reject the peace plan _ an apparent response to Israeli Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who said the U.S. plan was not relevant as long as war with Iraq was pending.
U.S. envoy David Satterfield is expected in the region next week to talk to both sides about the plan.