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|Wednesday, August 29, 2001, updated at 22:33(GMT+8)|
Roundup: Israel Decides to Stay in Beit Jalla Until Firing StopsCovered by helicopter gunships, Israeli tanks and armored personal carriers stormed into the West Bank town of Beit Jalla in darkness early Tuesday morning, marking the longest and one of the deepest military incursions into the Palestinian-controlled territories.
In the incursion dubbed as "Operation Safe Home," the Israel Defense Force (IDF) seized at least five buildings, including the Lutheran Church, which houses 50 children aged between four to 18, to serve as military outposts to counter Palestinian attacks.
Meanwhile, Israeli tanks moved into positions and got ready to hit any Palestinian targets from where the firing opens.
Beit Jalla, a mostly Christian Palestinian town south of Jerusalem, was almost empty Tuesday night as most of local residents fled to the nearby Bethlehem and other areas in the West Bank.
But Israel, shrugging off international pressure and condemnation, vowed Tuesday evening that the IDF will remain in the town until "all the sources of gunfire located and silenced."
"We are forced to act after months of restraint in order to put a partition between the innocent citizens of Gilo and the threat they faced," said Brigadier General Yitzhak Gershon, a senior IDF commander in the West Bank.
Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer convened an urgent meeting of the army's top brass and intelligence officers at his office in Tel Aviv Tuesday evening to discuss the repercussions of the IDF's military incursion into Beit Jalla.
During the meeting, he decided to instruct the IDF to stay in the town until the complete cessation of Palestinians firing at Gilo.
Gilo, just opposite Beit Jalla, is a Jewish settlement built on the occupied land seized by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War. Israel now considers the neighborhood an integral part of Jerusalem, a move never recognized internationally.
Officials from the Prime Minister's Office said on Tuesday that the decision to move the army into Beit jalla in the event of renewed firing from the town was made after the deadly suicide bombing in a pizza restaurant in downtown Jerusalem early this month, in which 15 people were killed and over 100 wounded.
When shootings on Gilo resumed on Monday following Israel's assassination of Abu Ali Mustafa, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon drew the conclusion that his credibility with the Palestinians was on the line, and authorized the operation that night.
Israel's military incursions into the Palestinian-controlled territories, which have violated the signed agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, have drawn sharp criticism from the international community.
Even the U.S. State Department has called on the Israel to withdraw its troops from Beit Jalla, saying that Israel should understand that such incursions will not solve the security problem, but only make matters worse.
Despite Israel's high-pressure policy, the exchange of gunfire between the two sides continued all day long on Tuesday, and at least three mortar shells landed on Gilo, forcing the Gilo residents to consider whether the IDF's operation could bring them security.
According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres objected to the move, arguing that it should have been delayed until after he meets with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in the hope that Arafat would again give his order to stop the attacks on Gilo.
In the face of his growing frustration, both Sharon and Ben Eliezer tried to explain to Peres on Tuesday that they were not bypassing him in any decision-making process.
Foreign Ministry officials also said that Peres has not given up his hope to arrange a ceasefire in Beit Jalla with Arafat.
On Tuesday, Peres phoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and foreign ministers of five countries, including Jordan and France, in an effort to ask them to help ensure that such a meeting would not end in failure.
However, it remains unclear whether Arafat is ready for such a meeting after Beit Jalla was re-occupied and Mustafa was killed.
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