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Latest Terror Attack in Hebron Prompts Calls for Sharp Response

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Israel may respond to the latest Palestinian terror attack by taking more West Bank land.

On Sunday, two days after 12 Israelis were killed in a Palestinian ambush in Hebron, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was quoted as saying that he wants Israel to take control of lands linking Hebron to the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba.

Sharon said Israel would bolster the Jewish settlements in the Hebron area by linking up several small settler enclaves in the city and the neighboring Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, according to Israeli media reports.

He reportedly spoke of the plan when he, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and top army commanders toured the scene of last Friday’s ambush in Hebron.

According to Israel Radio, Sharon also said the army must create a situation that will ensure the safety of the Jews living in the divided city. He added that the army should greatly reduce the presence of Palestinians in the area in which the settlers live.

In last Friday’s attack, three Palestinian snipers opened fire and tossed grenades at security forces escorting Jewish worshipers from the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron to nearby Kiryat Arba following Sabbath prayers.

Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack, which came several weeks after Israeli soldiers pulled out of most Palestinian areas of the city.

The army chief of staff told the Cabinet on Sunday that the cell believed responsible for the ambush was Hebron-based and had returned to the city following the recent Israeli troops redeployment.

Twelve Israelis were killed and 14 others wounded in last Friday’s attack before Israeli troops killed the three terrorists during a lengthy gun battle.

Of the Israeli dead, four were soldiers and five were border police. Three members of Kiryat Arba’s security response team who rushed to the site when the shooting began were also killed.

The dead included the commander of Israeli forces in Hebron, a colonel, who is the highest-ranking officer to be killed since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict erupted more than two years ago.

Funerals were held Sunday for most of victims.

They were identified as the brigade commander in Hebron, Col. Dror Weinberg, 38, of Jerusalem; border police Chief Superintendent Samih Sweidan, 31, of Al-Aramshe; Sgt. Tomer Nov, 19, of Ashdod; Sgt. Gad Rahamim, 19, of Kiryat Malachi; Staff Sgt. Netanel Machluf, 19, of Hadera; Staff Sgt. Yeshayahu Davidov, 20, of Netanya; Sgt. Igor Drobitsky, 20, of Nahariya; Cpl. David Marcus, 20, of Ma’aleh Adumim; and Lt. Dan Cohen, 22, of Jerusalem.

Also killed were three civilian members of the Kiryat Arba emergency response team: Yitzhak Buanish, 46; Alexander Zwitman, 26; and Alexander Dohan, 33.

Following what has been called the “Sabbath Massacre,” Israeli leaders approved an anti-terror operation in Hebron.

As part of the operation, the army imposed a curfew and renewed patrols in Palestinian parts of the city. The army has arrested at least 40 Palestinian terror suspects since Saturday.

In addition, the army demolished six Hebron-area houses belonging to Palestinians allegedly involved in terrorist activity.

The weekend operation was seen as a prelude to a broader campaign against the terrorist infrastructure in Hebron.

Until last Friday’s attack, Hebron had been considered one of the quietest of the Palestinian cities. Three weeks ago, Israeli troops redeployed from most Palestinian neighborhoods there.

Israel’s operation in Hebron — while in line with previous army responses to terrorist attacks — seemed to dash hopes for gradually transferring areas in the southern West Bank back to Palestinian control. This initiative had been championed by former Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

At Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, Sharon was urged by hard-line ministers to retaliate forcefully for the latest attack.

Several ministers, including Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who is seeking to wrest the Likud Party leadership from Sharon — renewed their calls to send Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat into exile.

Sharon refuses to take the step — and his aided said Sunday that a previous Cabinet decision not to expel the Palestinian leader remains in effect.

The United States opposes the expulsion of Arafat at a time when it tries to maintain Arab support for a possible strike against Iraq.

During an exchange between Sharon and Netanyahu at the Cabinet session, Netanyahu was quoted as saying it would be easier for Israel to explain why it banished Arafat than why it leaves him alone.

Sharon reportedly countered that the problem cannot be solved with slogans.

The ambush has meanwhile ignited debate over what to do in Hebron.

Meretz legislator Mossi Raz, who opposes the Jewish presence in the city, protested that the government should not “exploit the legitimate anger and pain” over the attack to “sink further into the Hebron mud,” the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot quoted him as saying.

Meanwhile, Tourism Minister Yitzhak Levy proposed that a promenade be built along the route taken by the Jewish worshipers last Friday.

On Saturday, more than 1,000 Israelis demonstrated near the site of the Hebron attack.

Gathering under heavy security, the demonstrators called for a decisive government retaliation. They also demanded construction of a Jewish neighborhood at the attack site.

The Yesha Council, which represents settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, called for cancellation of the 1997 Hebron accords, which gave the Palestinian Authority control over 80 percent of Hebron.

Government deliberations about how to respond to the attack came as politicians stake out their positions for the nation’s general elections.

They also came amid international calls for restraint.

The U.S. State Department denounced the ambush as a “heinous crime,” but also urged Israel to act with restraint.

A State Department spokesman said the United States understands Israel’s need to take anti-terrorist action, but urged Israeli troops to prevent Palestinian civilian casualties.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on all Palestinian groups to halt acts of terror.

In another development, Mofaz phoned U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell late Saturday to update them on the situation.

“Israel is now in the midst of a wave of terror against it and will, therefore, do whatever is necessary to protect its citizens,” Mofaz told Rumsfeld. “In no case will we compromise on the security of the citizens of the State of Israel.”

Netanyahu issued a statement: “Israel expects the international community to support its firm reaction against terrorism and the regime that backs it.

“Israel hopes that the nations of the world will not confine themselves to words of condolence, but will support its government in the duty to use its defensive forces to protect its citizens, as any other nation would do.”

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