Bethlehem, Dec. 26 (Reuters): Israeli troops shot dead seven Palestinians in raids across the West Bank and swept back into Bethlehem to reimpose a curfew today, ending a brief Christmas respite from occupation.
The flurry of Israeli army operations drew vows of revenge from Palestinian militant groups, aggravating hostilities which the US wants kept in check to help it cultivate Arab support for possible war against Iraq.
In Bethlehem, troops fired teargas at Palestinians shopping near the town centre, ordering them by loudspeakers to return home, and resumed patrols in front of the ancient Church of the Nativity, which Christians revere as Jesus’ birthplace.
“The curfew was put back in place a short time ago for operational needs,” an Israeli military source said.
The army reoccupied Bethlehem a month ago after a Palestinian suicide bomber from the town blew up a bus in nearby Jerusalem, killing 11 Israelis. But after an appeal from Pope John Paul, Israeli forces pulled back to the outskirts of Bethlehem on Tuesday to allow Christmas observances to proceed.
Despite that, Palestinian Christians called it one of their dreariest Christmas in Bethlehem. Two years of bloodshed has scared away pilgrims and tourists who once flocked to the West Bank biblical town for the holidays.
Several army patrols rumbled over Bethlehem’s cobblestone streets today. Soldiers arrested at least one man, identified as a Palestinian intelligence officer, and there were sporadic clashes with stone-throwers.
The return to Bethlehem coincided with rapid-fire sweeps for militants in other West Bank cities and towns reoccupied by Israeli forces following a spate of suicide bombings in June, part of a Palestinian militant fight for statehood.
Israeli military sources called the raids “counter-terrorism operations”.
“We condemn this Israeli escalation,” Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said. “(Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon is inviting retaliation and counter-violence.”
In Ramallah, Israeli undercover troops riddled a car with gunfire, killing Bassem al-Ashqar of the Islamic movement Hamas, the main group behind suicide bombings against Israelis in a Palestinian uprising for independence.
An Israeli military source said troops had tried to detain two wanted men in a car but one of them opened fire.