Autonomy shaken in West Bank

Israeli tanks roll into Palestinian territory, as both sides ratchet up their responses.

In less than a day, Israel has delivered two major blows to the crumbling edifice of what was once called the Middle East peace process.

In the early morning hours yesterday, Israeli tanks entered the West Bank town of Beit Jala, which Israel ceded to Palestinian rule in 1995. About 14 hours earlier, Israeli forces assassinated the most senior Palestinian political leader to be killed since violence broke out last fall.

Palestinian autonomy over Beit Jala and other parts of the West Bank, as well as over most of the Gaza Strip, was a keystone of the peace process of the 1990s - the partial fulfillment of the Palestinians' decades-old demand to be free of Israeli occupation.

Beit Jala has since become a symbol of what has gone wrong over the past year: Palestinian gunmen have used it as a base from which to fire on the nearby Israeli settlement of Gilo. Israeli forces have rarely failed to fire back, turning many of Beit Jala's hillside homes into blackened, pockmarked hulks.

The symbolism deepened before dawn yesterday, when Israeli troops reoccuppied the hilly streets of the largely Christian town. Palestinian fighters challenged the intruders with small arms that did little to slow Israel's tanks and armored personnel carriers.

The Israelis have entered Palestinian-ruled areas before, and did so in Gaza yesterday morning, but they have always pulled out within hours. At press time, the Beit Jala invasion seemed more durable.

"I don't see a reason at the moment to delineate the goals and duration of the operation," Israeli Brig. Gen. Gershon Yitzhak told reporters.

For months, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has warned that continued firing on Gilo would force him to send the Israel Defense Forces into Beit Jala. The Israelis consider Gilo a suburb of Jerusalem, due to an annexation that the US and other governments do not recognize. Gilo is built on land Israeli forces seized during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

In recent weeks, exchanges of fire between Beit Jala and Gilo have been few and far between, thanks in part to US and European cease-fire efforts, but Monday was different. At midday, Israeli forces killed Mustapha Zibri, the head of a Palestinian political faction.

Despite international criticism, Israel has insisted on maintaining what it calls a defensive policy of assassinating Palestinians it accuses of preparing attacks on Israelis. But the death of so prominent a political figure inflamed Palestinians. Gunmen began firing on Gilo Monday evening, apparently setting the stage for the invasion.

In this feudlike conflict, the provocations cut both ways. Israeli Justice Minister Meir Shitreet told a TV interviewer yesterday that his government authorized the Beit Jala operation after the Aug. 9 suicide bombing of a Jerusalem pizzeria, which killed 16 people, including the bomber.

He also said Israel was not planning to reoccupy Beit Jala, but would stay as long as necessary to protect Gilo.

Degaulle Hodali, the director of Beit Jala's public health service and its sometime acting mayor, spent Monday night on the floor of one of his two homes in the town, huddling with his wife and son against the cacophony of shelling and gunfire.

After daybreak he and his family fled to his clinic in neighboring Bethlehem, where they are wondering what to do next. He says their main house, on Beit Jala's Iraq Street, is now under Israeli control. "We don't know where we can go."

A similar quandary faces the diplomats and world leaders who would like to do something to halt the bleak, downward spiral of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw yesterday condemned "the incursion by [Israeli forces] into Beig Jala."

The move into Beit Jala, says Mark Heller, an Israeli strategic analyst, is "just part of the pattern of escalating responses." He says the Israelis and Palestinians are both ratcheting up the conflict until the other side backs down.

"Now if you ask me, will it work? I'm not sure. I don't know," says Mr. Heller. The success of this operation, he adds, "depends in part on the credibility of the implicit threat to stay in Beit Jala and do it again elsewhere."

That would involve large-scale re-occupation of Palestinian areas, something that would likely draw US and European ire in a way that the Israelis have not yet faced. It would also tax the Israeli body politic.

Sharon heads a coalition government that includes more dovish Labor party members who have advocated negotiation as a means to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Depriving Palestinians of their autonomy in any largescale reoccupation might break up the coalition.

But Sharon must also answer to Israeli hard-liners - especially within his own Likud party - who are demanding tougher action against the Palestinians.

At the moment, says Ephraim Inbar, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv, the Laborites won't bolt.

"Some of them don't like [the Beit Jala operation], but they'll swallow it," he says. "What the government is doing is very popular. Israelis in large numbers want a stronger response to terrorism."

The Palestinians also see the conflict escalating. "Sharon has reached a point of frustration and he wants to break the back of the Palestinian people," says Hisham Ahmed of Bir Zeit University in the West Bank.

But that day is a long time coming, he says. "'Why not die resisting?' - That's what people are saying."

Hodali, the doctor who spent Monday night on the floor of his Beit Jala home, says, "We have to resist, because this is our right and this is our land.... They are the invaders."

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