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Bloody Clash Near Bethlehem Leaves at Least Four Dead

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As security forces stepped up efforts to prevent a repeat of violence during Friday prayers on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, violence erupted Thursday near Bethlehem.

At least four Arabs died and 12 were wounded in one of the bloodiest clashes since the uprising in the administered territories began 16 months ago.

The incident deflated hopes that the intifada, as Palestinians call the uprising, is waning.

The confrontation took place in the village of Nahalin, southwest of Bethlehem, Thursday, during a "routine search and arrest operation."

Palestinians termed the clash a "massacre."

According to Palestinian sources, five people died and 20 were wounded as border police opened fire on rioters. Five of the wounded were in the intensive-care unit of an East Jerusalem hospital.

It was still unclear Thursday evening what had caused the tragic event, at a time when the army’s declared policy is to avoid "unnecessary confrontations" with the local population.

Maj. Gen. Amram Mitzna, Israel Defense Force commander of the central region, appointed a brigadier general and two other senior officers to investigate the incident.

He said that in this case, he would not be satisfied with the normal military investigations conducted after fatal confrontations with the local population.

RESPONDED TO AN ‘AMBUSH’

But at a news conference after the preliminary investigation was completed, Mitzna said a company of 30 border police officers was forced to fire at village residents, after "many residents, mostly youths, prepared an ambush against the border policemen, using exceptional force."

The officers used live ammunition, said Mitzna, after tear gas and rubber bullets failed to disperse the attackers.

Mitzna said that the army departed from a recent policy of not interfering in remote villages and initiated the raid on Nahalin, because residents there had been responsible for a number of firebomb and stone-throwing attacks on the Bethlehem-Hebron road and on the road leading to the nearby settlement of Hadar Beitar.

Reporters who managed to enter Nahalin, despite the curfew imposed by the army, reported that the village looked like the aftermath of a war battle: The streets were strewn with rocks and bloodstains covered the area outside the mosque, apparently the site of the clash between the youths and the security forces.

According to local residents, trouble began when a jeep-load of border police officers entered the village early Thursday morning, escorted by settlers, just as residents were eating breakfast before beginning their daytime Ramadan fast.

But Mitzna said that to the best of his knowledge, no Jewish civilians were on the scene during the incident.

Mitzna noted that Nahalin has been known as a "troublesome" village and that several of those killed and wounded were known as activists, among them members of the Moslem fundamentalist Hamas movement.

As soon as news of the clash spread to Bethlehem and neighboring villages, a general strike was called, and youths took to the street, sparking new clashes with the security forces.

The bloody confrontation in Nahalin wrapped up an exceptionally violent week, which began last Friday with riots on the Temple Mount and reached another climax two days later, when a still unidentified gunman shot to death an Arab man near Jaffa Gate in the Old City, wounding two others.

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