Israel said Wednesday it would not stop building a security barrier in the West Bank despite a U.N. resolution demanding that the fence be torn down. Israeli troops, meanwhile, shot and killed three Palestinian militants in a series of raids and clashes in the West Bank. Two Jewish settlers were wounded.
ISRAEL’S POLICE MINISTER, Tzachi Hanegbi, secretly toured a disputed holy site in Jerusalem — the first visit by a senior Israeli official since Israeli-Palestinian fighting erupted there three years ago. Muslim administrators of the site called the visit a provocation, though Hanegbi said it was coordinated with them.
A day after the United Nations approved a nonbinding resolution on the security barrier, Israel’s vice premier, Ehud Olmert, said construction of the disputed fence would continue.
“We have to worry about Israel’s security, and it is clear that we will not act according to the instructions of a hostile, automatic majority ... which has always acted against Israel,” Olmert told Israel Radio.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called the U.N. decision a victory for peace.
“The world has just sent a powerful message that the shortest way to peace is not through settlements and walls, but rather through a meaningful peace process that will end the Israeli occupation that began in 1967,” Erekat told The Associated Press.
Israel says the barrier is needed to block Palestinian suicide bombers and other attackers from entering the country. Palestinians denounce it as an attempt to isolate their people and grab their land, since it cuts through their villages in the West Bank and around Jerusalem.
3 PALESTINIAN MILITANTS KILLED
In the West Bank city of Hebron, a Palestinian gunman attacked troops guarding a Jewish enclave, the Israeli army said. A squad of settler security guards exchanged fire with the attacker, killing him. Rescuers said two of the guards were wounded, one seriously.
Troops found an assault rifle and ammunition on the dead gunman, the army said, and were searching the area. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
Earlier Wednesday, the army shot and killed two Palestinian militants in pre-dawn arrest raids in Hebron and the West Bank town of Qalqiliya. The army said both men were shot after trying to flee. Troops arrested 18 other Palestinians in the raids.
Also in Hebron, troops destroyed the house of a Palestinian suspected of sending suicide bombers into Israel, Israeli security officials said.
In Gaza, troops fired on two “suspicious figures” early Wednesday who were seen in an unauthorized area about 60 yards from the border fence with Israel, apparently laying explosives, the army said. The two were wounded but fled, the source said, adding that troops found an anti-tank device laden with 88 pounds of explosives in the area.
Palestinian security officials said the two Palestinians were wounded by tank fire and taken to Shifa hospital, where one was in critical condition. Security and hospital officials said the Palestinians were civilians.
ISRAELI OFFICIAL VISITS DISPUTED SITE
The fighting came as Hanegbi announced he had secretly toured a disputed holy site at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The visit in Jerusalem’s Old City ended without incident, although Muslim clerics criticized the tour.
The site is home to the Temple Mount, revered as Judaism’s holiest site, where the ruins of ancient temples are believed buried. Muslims call the compound the Haram as-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, where the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosques are located.
InsertArt(2048464)Hanegbi’s visit was the first by a senior Israeli official since then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon — now the prime minister — toured the site in 2000. Sharon’s visit sparked protests that escalated into the ongoing bloodshed.
Hanegbi’s office said the minister surveyed security arrangements in preparation for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins next week.
“We didn’t want the visit to have the nature of a demonstration, we didn’t want any tension there,” Hanegbi told Israel Radio.
Also the head of Israel’s military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi, told legislators he believes Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is “seriously ill.”
Zeevi delivered the assessment to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday, committee director Baruch Friedner confirmed. Zeevi said the nature of Arafat’s ailment was unknown.
Arafat’s aides said Tuesday the 74-year-old leader had gallstones. Earlier this month, he suffered from stomach problems and looked pale and disoriented, prompting speculation he was seriously ill.
CONFLICTING VERSIONS OF AIRSTRIKE
Wednesday’s developments came a day after Palestinians in a Gaza refugee camp buried seven people they say died in an air attack.
InsertArt(2048460)The Israeli military and Palestinian witnesses offered conflicting versions of the airstrike in the Nusseirat camp Monday night. Palestinians said the seven dead, including an 11-year-old boy, were civilians killed by an Israeli missile fired into a crowd.
Israel said, however, that militants and some civilians had been struck. It released a video indicating no one was on the street near the targeted vehicle.
The airstrikes revived debate inside Israel over targeted killings in populated areas. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, in a rare criticism of Washington, complained the United States was doing nothing to stop what he said are Israel’s “ugly crimes.”
Qureia said the failure to intervene was a “dangerous indication of the U.S. government’s intention to abandon” its role in peace efforts.
President Bush, who met with Muslim clerics in Indonesia Wednesday, said there needs to be “a concerted effort to fight off the terrorists who are trying to prevent the establishment” of a Palestinian state.
Bush also blamed Arafat for last month’s resignation of former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.
“I felt disappointed that Arafat shoved him out of the way. It was an unfair decision because it stopped good progress toward a Palestinian state,” Bush said.
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