Piece by piece, Israel seizing West Bank

Israeli forces controlled Bethlehem and other West Bank towns Tuesday.

The Israeli tank idled at the top of Qutaa Street as the soldiers inside swivelled its turret and barrel from house to house and window to window. For hours the tank remained in place, the residents of the hundreds of buildings within its range never certain when it might fire.

One hundred yards away, Bethlehem University assistant professor Norma Hazboun gazed at the tank through the glass door of her apartment balcony. "It's a real occupation of the whole city," she said sadly. "You feel there's no hope at the end of this tunnel."

Like most Bethlehem residents, Ms. Hazboun spent a sleepless night Monday and and an edgy day yesterday, watching Israeli armor and soldiers move through her neighborhood. Every few minutes, staccato gunfire and echoing booms interrupted the silence of the deserted, rain-slicked streets.

Israeli forces are continuing their city-by-city invasion of Palestinian-ruled areas. Troops now occupy all or parts of Ramallah, Bethlehem, Tulkarem, Qalqiliya, and several other smaller towns and villages.

Troops and armor reportedly were massing yesterday near Nablus and Jenin in the northern West Bank. If those invasions proceed, Israel will have re-occupied all the urban areas in the central and northern West Bank.

Israel says operation "Defensive Shield" is intended to root out the "infrastructure of terror," a daunting task among a people where even teenage girls say they aspire to be suicide bombers. Soldiers have conducted innumerable house-to-house searches, arrested hundreds of Palestinians, seized scores of small arms, and publicized documents that purport to show the direct involvement of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority in financing terrorist attacks.

Yesterday Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said European diplomats could escort Mr. Arafat into exile, a notion Secretary of State Colin Powell immediately opposed. Israeli forces also attacked the compound of Jibril Rajoub, the West Bank commander of the PA's Preventive Security Service, a force organized in part to prevent Palestinian attacks against Israelis. The Israeli government now says the compound harbors terrorists, which Mr. Rajoub denies.

The prospect of sending Arafat into exile and destroying the vestiges of the Palestinians' security forces raises questions about where Israel's strategy is leading. "Arafat can't control 3.2 million [Palestinians] who are craving martyrdom – how can Sharon control it?" wonders Manuel Hassassian, the executive vice president of Bethlehem University and frequent participant in Israeli-Palestinian dialogues.

He lives across town from his colleague Hazboun, but he, too, spent a sleepless Monday night, as Israeli fighter planes, attack helicopters, and pilotless drones flew and hovered overhead in preparation for the assault. By yesterday afternoon, the skies held nothing but clouds, but Mr. Hassassian said there were new fears.

"People are scared of house-to-house arrests, of soldiers getting into houses and putting people in rooms as they have been doing in Ramallah," he says. "It seems they have lists," he adds, referring to the Israelis, "and they are looking for people." The Israelis say they have arrested more than 700 people in Ramallah.

The worst fighting in Bethlehem took place near the Church of the Nativity, which Christians venerate as the birthplace of Jesus. In early March, during Israeli incursions into Bethlehem's refugee camps, which the Israelis see as the sources of militant activity against them, Palestinian fighters gathered in the square in front of the church and chuckled over Israel's failed dragnet. This time, the Israelis moved into the square itself, using a helicopter and tanks to fire on gunmen.

News agencies reported three civilians killed in Bethlehem and said an Israeli soldier was killed by a sniper. A Palestinian woman leaving a hospital was also killed in Ramallah yesterday, apparently by an Israeli sniper, The Associated Press reported. Palestinian officials say the bodies of 25 Palestinians killed during Israel's invasion of the city are stored in the city's morgue.

Overall, nearly 1,200 Palestinians and some 400 Israelis have been killed in the violence that broke out a year and a half ago. Palestinians seem more determined than ever to use force to oppose Israel's 35-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Israel seems ever more resolute that military force is the only means available to counter Palestinian violence.

As the conflict wears on, people such Hazboun, a British-trained political sociologist, can only watch with dismay. Yesterday, three foreign journalists and their Palestinian interpreter interrupted her monitoring of events to take shelter in her apartment.

Israeli soldiers had earlier fired what seemed to be warning shots at the journalists, forcing them to get off the streets. Hazboun graciously admitted us to her elegant apartment, which was decorated for Easter, and served us tea and a light lunch while we all watched the Israelis moving about below.

Several soldiers and vehicles passed within 30 yards of Hazboun's second floor windows. Occasionally, the shots of Palestinian gunmen were heard nearby. Sometimes the Israelis moved about with confidence, and sometimes they stayed low and close to the nearest wall, as if they feared attack. A ribbon of smoke rose into the air behind a church visible from Hazboun's apartment.

While she sees her people engaged in a nationalistic struggle for self-determination, Israel's government sees "terror, terror, and more terror," to quote from a speech Sharon gave Sunday night.

"We must wage an uncompromising fight against this terror, uproot these weeds, and smash their infrastructure because there is no compromise with terror," said Sharon, equating the Palestinians with those behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

"It's not comparable at all," says Hazboun, sitting on a loveseat in front of her television, several remotes and two telephones at hand.

Outside the Israeli tank continued menacing her neighborhood. Whenever the barrel pointed directly at Hazboun's living room, she and her guests felt it wise to crouch down and move to the rear of her apartment.

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