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Eight Palestinians Killed

February 19, 2002

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JERUSALEM (AP) _ Eight Palestinians, including a 14-year-old girl and three other civilians, were killed Tuesday in gun battles and Israeli reprisals for a string of deadly attacks by Palestinian militants. Israeli warplanes and helicopters pounded Palestinian targets in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

With nine Israelis killed over six days, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is under growing pressure to take more decisive action. Among the dead were a 14-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber in a pizza parlor on Saturday.

Later Tuesday an Israeli bus driver pushed a suicide bomber off his vehicle and the man blew himself up, police said. An army spokesman said the attacker died but there were no other injuries near the Jewish settlement of Mehola in the northern West Bank.

In one strike Tuesday, Israeli helicopter gunships fired three missiles at the office of the Islamic militant group Hamas in the crowded Jebalya refugee camp, killing two Palestinians and critically wounding four, including a 10-year-old girl, doctors said.

In all, 25 Palestinians were wounded in the fighting, including five children.

Israeli hard-liners have demanded that Sharon crush Yasser Arafat’s government and recapture Palestinian territory. Sharon decided after consultations with top security officials late Monday to stop short of a large-scale military operation, while intensifying military strikes.

``There will be no strategic change, but there will be wider use of military means,″ said Sharon adviser Raanan Gissin.

A group of 1,200 retired Israeli security officials, meanwhile, proposed an immediate Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the dismantling of 40 to 50 isolated Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

In a position paper published this week, the Council for Peace and Security said troops being used to defend the settlements should be deployed along a line close to the invisible frontier between Israel and the West Bank. The group also called for the immediate resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians.

In nearly 17 months of fighting, Israel has launched air strikes against Palestinian Authority installations, raided Palestinian areas, killed suspected militants in targeted attacks and destroyed hundreds of acres of crops.

Newspaper commentators said the current situation was unbearable.

``In the present situation, a decision must be made,″ wrote commentator Yoav Limor in the Maariv daily. The army should either conquer the Palestinian territories, withdraw unilaterally or pursue a peace agreement, Limor wrote.

Arafat said Tuesday that despite the Israeli reprisals, ``we are still committed to the peace process.″ Israel accuses Arafat of playing a double game, professing commitment to peace talks while quietly encouraging militants to carry out attacks.

The latest string of events began Monday, with three separate attacks.

On the outskirts of Jerusalem, a Palestinian detonated explosives after being stopped by police, killing himself and an officer. Later, a Palestinian gunmen fired at Israelis in the Gaza Strip, killing an Israeli motorist and two soldiers before being shot dead. Another Palestinian was killed by Israeli troops in a failed shooting attack.

Near the site where the motorist and the two soldiers were killed, Israeli troops demolished two Palestinian homes Tuesday, and soldiers ordered 18 other homeowners in the area to remove their belongings ahead of evacuation, witnesses said.

In other reprisals, Israeli warplanes pounded Palestinian security installations in the West Bank town of Ramallah and the refugee camp of Rafah in Gaza, and gunships fired missiles at the Hamas office in Jebalya.

In the Gaza town of Khan Yunis, three Palestinian civilians, including a mother and her 14-year-old daughter, were killed early Tuesday when an Israeli tank shell hit their homes, Palestinian witnesses said. The army declined comment.

Later Tuesday, two Palestinian opened fire at soldiers near a junction in the Gaza Strip, and one of the assailants was killed by return fire, the army said. In response, army bulldozers knocked down the outside wall of a nearby flour mill, saying the compound had given cover to the gunmen.

Israeli troops also blocked Gaza’s main north-south road to Palestinian traffic, effectively dividing the strip into three parts.

In the West Bank, Israeli undercover troops approached the Balata refugee camp, a stronghold of the Al Aqsa Brigades, a militia linked to Arafat’s Fatah movement, members of the militia said. A Palestinian gunman and a woman from the camp were killed in the ensuing firefight, witnesses said.

The military confirmed soldiers were in the area, but made no reference to undercover activity.

In Israel, the debate heated up over possible ways to end the fighting.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that Israel should expel Arafat. ``The goal is to defeat the terror regime, to effectively bring it down,″ Netanyahu told The Associated Press. Netanyahu said he would challenge Sharon for leadership of their Likud party and try to replace him as prime minister.

Arafat said such comments were unhelpful.