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Israelis Kill Six in Hunt for Militants

December 26, 2002

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) _ Israeli soldiers hunting militiamen in the West Bank killed six Palestinians on Thursday _ four gunmen, an unarmed teenager and an apparent bystander, officials on both sides said. Five Israeli soldiers were wounded.

An Israeli official, meanwhile, confirmed that the military has begun setting up buffer zones around Jewish settlements in the West Bank to keep out Palestinian attackers. Palestinian officials complained that Israel was further expanding settlements with the fenced-in zones.

Thursday’s violence came a day after Palestinian Christians observed what some said was their dreariest Christmas ever, with Israeli tanks surrounding the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Jesus’ traditional birthplace.

In the town of Ramallah, Israeli soldiers trying to arrest two wanted men killed one in a firefight and captured the second, an Israeli military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Palestinian hospital officials said an apparent bystander was also killed in the fighting. The slain wanted man was tentatively identified as Bassam Lutfi, an activist in the Islamic militant group Hamas.

In the town Tulkarem, Israeli soldiers killed Jamal Nader, 28, a local leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, a militia linked to Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement.

In a third incident, in the town of Kabatiya, soldiers surrounded the home of Hamza Abu Roub, 37, a local leader of the Islamic Jihad group, and demanded that he surrender. Abu Roub sent out his wife and children, a neighbor said. The fugitive then appeared near the wall of his house and began shooting, drawing heavy return fire. Bursts of gunfire echoed through the town, residents said.

Four soldiers were wounded in the gunbattle, including one who was in serious condition. Troops blew up Abu Roub’s home.

Both Abu Roub and Nader, the militiaman from Tulkarem, were at their homes even though they were fugitives. Wanted Palestinians have found it increasingly difficult in recent weeks to find refuge in homes of supporters because troops have been demolishing homes of those who hide wanted militants.

Also Thursday, in the West Bank city of Nablus, Israeli soldiers searching for wanted men killed a Palestinian gunman in a firefight in the downtown area, or Casbah, the army said. An Israeli soldier was lightly wounded.

Later Thursday, soldiers re-imposed a curfew on Nablus _ a routine measure since troops reoccupied the city in June. Hundreds of Palestinians threw stones at soldiers, and the soldiers opened fire, killing a Palestinian teenager, witnesses said.

The teenager, who witnesses said was carrying books and was not involved in stone-throwing, was killed by a shot in the stomach, hospital sources said. The army was checking the report.

The Israeli army reoccupied every major West Bank city except Jericho in the summer in response to a deadly wave of suicide bombings and attacks against Israelis.

Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza have frequently been targeted by Palestinian militants, with gunmen cutting through fences.

Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, confirmed Thursday that the Israeli army has begun establishing wider buffer zones around West Bank settlements to keep out attackers.

The zones will have beefed up patrols and special observation towers, Gissin said. He refused to detail what other special measures will be taken.

``It’s part of the overall measures the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) is taking to protect settlers,″ Gissin said. ``It’s just to ensure that you have a forward defense deployment so you don’t engage the terrorists inside the compound or inside the village, you try to intercept them outside the fence.″

According to the Haaretz newspaper, special rules of engagement will apply in these buffer zones and soldiers will be allowed to immediately fire on anyone trying to penetrate the area. Normally, soldiers have to fire in the air before shooting directly at a suspect.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said the buffer zones are a further attempt by Sharon to expand settlements and sabotage a U.S.-backed peace plan that envisions Palestinian statehood by 2005.

``Sharon wants to make sure by 2005 that it will be impossible to create a Palestinian state because of the settlements,″ Erekat said.

More than 200,000 Israelis live in more than 150 Jewish settlements scattered across the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians view the settlers _ many of whom are armed _ as legitimate targets in their struggle for independence.

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