Israeli forces briefly raided the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Friday and dynamited the home of a Palestinian who blew up a Jerusalem bus — stopping far short of a large-scale reprisal customary after a deadly suicide attack.
Israel’s leadership was divided over how hard to hit back but appeared to have decided on a measured response after a meeting Thursday between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.
In the Gaza Strip, the Islamic militant Hamas group belatedly claimed responsibility Friday for the bombing, which killed 10 Israelis and wounded more than 50. A rival faction linked the Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement initially said it sent the bomber.
If Hamas was behind the attack, it would mark a significant change in tactics. Hamas had held off on carrying out bombings in Israel for nearly six months, during Egyptian-brokered efforts to reach a cease-fire with Israel.
In another sign the Islamic militant group is changing course, its leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin declared Friday that his group is making an all-out effort to kidnap Israeli soldiers to use as bargaining chips for Palestinians in Israeli prisons.
Attack follows prisoner swap
Yassin spoke a day after a prisoner swap between Israel and the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah. Israel released more than 400 prisoners, mostly Palestinians, in exchange for an Israeli businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers.
Yassin appeared to be trying to explain why Hamas has failed to free its prisoners from Israeli jails. “The (Palestinian) factions will not spare any effort to kidnap Israeli soldiers,” Yassin said outside a Gaza City mosque after Muslim prayers. “And they tried many times, but the Israeli soldier today is as cautious as a bird is about its chick.”
About 7,000 Palestinians remain in Israeli custody. “They (Israelis) only understand the language of force, and they will never give us our freedom,” Yassin said.
Raanan Gissin, a Sharon adviser, returned the warning, saying Israel had the means to respond to such kidnappings. He did not elaborate.
“With the same tenacity and determination that we use to return prisoners to Israel, we will get at those who kidnap soldiers,” Gissin said. “And our long arm has always reached them.”
Yassin offered no explanation for his group’s delayed claim of responsibility for the Jerusalem bombing. On Thursday, the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, an armed group with ties to Fatah, said it dispatched the bomber, Palestinian policeman Ali Jaara, from the Aida refugee camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem.
The blast ripped apart the bus a block from Sharon’s official residence; he was not home at the time.
Israel’s response was less harsh compared to the large-scale military raids that have followed deadly bombings in the past.
Analysts said Sharon may be trying to keep the conflict at a low level during the U.S. election year.
Another reason, they said, could be that a major military offensive would draw international attention away from the bombing as the world court prepares to hear arguments on the legality of a separation barrier Israel is building in the West Bank. Israel says the barrier is necessary to keep out Palestinian attackers; Palestinians say it amounts to a land grab.
The Bethlehem incursion, the first in six months, lasted just 12 hours, and Israel did not clamp a closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip as it has routinely in the past.
The target was the Aida camp. Several dozen jeeps and armored vehicles moved slowly through darkened streets in convoys, training spotlights onto houses.
Soldiers ringed the bomber’s house. Figures could be seen moving past brightly lit windows in second floor and walking down an outdoor staircase. A few hours later, troops blew up the house with explosive charges.
The military said it arrested several suspected militants. It was the first military operation in the city since troops left the town in July as part of a larger withdrawal called for under a U.S.-backed peace plan.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat condemned the raid. “Instead of sending soldiers and tanks to Bethlehem, Israel’s government should have sent negotiators to resume a meaningful peace process,” he said.
—Troops shot and killed an Islamic Jihad member, Jihad Suwaiti, near the West Bank city of Hebron. The military said the man fired shots as soldiers came to arrest him, and troops returned fire.
—In the Gaza Strip, a tank crew shot and killed two Palestinians. The military said it fired on a group carrying two explosive devices and rocket-propelled grenades near the Israeli settlement of Dugit shortly after midnight.
—Elsewhere in the West Bank, troops demolished six where Hamas militants captured by Israeli forces used to live. More than 50 people were left homeless. The arrested men are accused in two recent shooting ambushes that killed five soldiers.
—In the West Bank town of Jenin, Israeli troops arrested Islamic Jihad leader, Sharif Tahaymeh, who had been on Israel’s wanted list for more than three years.
Thursday’s bombing disrupted a visit by two senior U.S. State Department officials, David Satterfield and John Wolf, who were trying to persuade Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia to meet with Sharon as a way of restarting the stalled “road map” peace plan. The two envoys were at Israel’s Defense Ministry when the bomber struck.