JERUSALEM (Nov. 24)
This has been a bad week for Israel in the court of world opinion.
After Israeli soldiers mistakenly killed a British man serving with the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in the Jenin refugee camp, U.N. and British officials criticized Israel.
And as the Israeli military continued its war on terrorism, this time in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, the Jewish state risked the ire of its closest ally, the United States.
Israeli officials admitted Sunday that UNRWA official Iain Hook had been killed last Friday by Israeli fire.
Hook, who ran a U.N. project to rebuild homes in the Jenin refugee camp, was killed during an exchange of gunfire between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen, the army said, adding that soldiers mistakenly thought he was holding for a weapon.
Issuing a preliminary investigation of the incident, the army said Palestinian gunmen had fired at Israeli soldiers from an UNRWA compound in the refugee camp.
The army also said the gunmen had used civilians as human shields during the clash, which erupted after soldiers surrounded the hideout of a local leader of Islamic Jihad.
Three army jeeps and a soldier wearing a bulletproof vest were hit by Palestinian fire coming from the vicinity of the UNRWA compound, the army added.
An UNRWA official disputed the Israeli account.
“Preliminary findings from our inquiry indicate that this is not true,” Paul McCann, a spokesman for UNRWA said Sunday. Israel’s “claim is incredibly incorrect.”
McCann said an investigator would soon arrive from U.N. headquarters in New York to launch a full investigation into Hook’s death.
UNRWA was created after Israel’s 1948 War of Independence to help Palestinian refugees.
Israel came under attack earlier this year after Palestinian officials accused the army of carrying out a massacre in the Jenin refugee camp.
In August, U.N. officials issued a report refuting the massacre allegations.
For their part, Israel and U.S. Jewish groups have accused UNRWA of allowing terrorism to flourish in the refugee camps it services, particularly in Jenin.
Following the killing of Hook last Friday, the army expressed regret over the incident.
British officials criticized the Israeli actions and are demanding a full Israeli investigation of what happened.
In addition to dealing with what is a shaping up to be a public relations disaster, Israeli officials are also pressing ahead with the war on Palestinian terror.
Bethlehem is the latest West Bank city to come under Israeli control.
The army took over the city last Friday — a day after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 11 people aboard a Jerusalem bus.
The Palestinian bomber came from Bethlehem.
Since taking over the city, Israeli soldiers have arrested some 30 suspected Palestinian terrorists, including three who were planning suicide bombings.
On Sunday, Israeli troops cordoned off the square around Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, preventing worshipers from attending services.
The army sealed off all access to the church to prevent a repeat of the standoff last spring, when more than 100 Palestinian gunmen took refuge in the holy site, which Christian tradition considers the spot where Jesus was born.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced last Friday that the “Bethlehem-first” plan — under which Israeli troops left the city several months ago so the Palestinian Authority could demonstrate its ability to fight terrorism — had been called off as a result of the Nov. 21 suicide bombing in Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, the United States is urging Israel to end its operation in Bethlehem as soon as possible.
Last Friday, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker urged Israel to remember the consequences of military actions and to take steps to avoid civilian casualties.
U.S. officials have been repeatedly urging Israel not to take actions that would escalate tensions in the Arab world as the United States prepares for a possible attack on Iraq.
Elsewhere in the West Bank on Sunday, Israeli troops withdrew from a West Bank mosque after failing to locate a Palestinian terror suspect.
Operating in the village of Tubas, soldiers called over loudspeakers for the surrender of Mohammed Alkilani, according to a prayer leader at the mosque.
When Alkilani failed to emerge, troops blew down two large mosque doors and entered, according to the Palestinian source. They searched the mosque and threw tear gas canisters into a water well inside the mosque, but did not find Alkilani, the source added.
The army refused to discuss details of the operation. Palestinians said a curfew was still in place in Tubas.
A curfew was also imposed Saturday night over the West Bank city of Kalkilya as soldiers searched for Palestinian terror suspects.
In another development over the weekend, Israel’s navy has closed the waters off the coast of the Gaza Strip.
Saturday’s move came one day after four members of an Israeli patrol boat crew were wounded in a suicide bombing carried out by two Palestinians aboard a fishing boat.
Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for last Friday’s attack, carried out after the boat entered Israeli-controlled waters off the northern coast of Gaza.
An Israeli gunship dispatched to the site tried to stop the fishing boat by firing warning shots. But when the gunship approached, the two Palestinians detonated their explosives.
Islamic Jihad vowed to carry out more such attacks.