HEBRON, West Bank, Oct. 5 — Hours after rebuking the United States for its role in the Middle East and declaring that Israelis would "depend only on ourselves," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon began one of the biggest military assaults of the yearlong conflict today, sending troops, tanks and Apache helicopters against Palestinian gunmen here.
By late this afternoon, 5 Palestinians had been killed and more than 40 wounded. Blue-and-white Israeli flags were fluttering from new Israeli outposts in Palestinian homes in Harat al Sheik, one of two hilltop neighborhoods in Palestinian-controlled territory that Israel reoccupied to stop snipers from firing on settlers below.
Blood-stained sidewalks, shattered windows and four bullet-riddled Palestinian jeeps testified to the ferocity of the fighting. Machine guns at the ready, two Israeli armored personnel carriers and one tank dominated a patch of high ground in Harat al Sheik, beneath a Palestinian building newly hung with camouflage netting, its windows filled in with sandbags.
The Israeli assault came after the killing of three Israelis by a Palestinian on Thursday. A man wearing the red beret of an Israeli paratrooper and carrying the M-16 that is standard issue for Israeli troops entered the central bus station in Afula, in northern Israel. Moments after two buses pulled into the station, he opened fire on the disembarking passengers. He killed 3 and wounded 13 before being shot dead.The man was subsequently identified as a Palestinian from the area of the West Bank town of Jenin. Tonight, his wife appeared on Israeli television, together with his young daughter, to declare her pride in his action. "He was sent out on a holy mission," she said.
The cease-fire urged on Israel and the Palestinians by the Bush administration has collapsed in all but name here, dealing a setback to the United States. Since the terrorist attacks on America on Sept. 11, the administration has promoted the cease-fire in hopes of coaxing Arab nations into an antiterror coalition.
After enthusiastically endorsing the coalition, Mr. Sharon has grown alarmed at the way President Bush has gone about assembling it, people familiar with his thinking say.
Mr. Sharon was blindsided by Mr. Bush's endorsement this week of the eventual creation of a Palestinian state, and offended, like many Israelis, by the decision to send Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld to consult with Arab nations, bypassing Israel.
What was once a tight relationship with the Bush administration has so deteriorated that in the last 24 hours, Mr. Sharon and the White House exchanged public slaps. Mr. Sharon warned that Mr. Bush risked acting like Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who appeased Hitler before World War II. The White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer, today rejected Mr. Sharon's remarks as "unacceptable."
In a statement released tonight, the prime minister's office did not respond directly to Mr. Fleischer. Instead, the statement reported that in a telephone conversation with Mr. Powell on Thursday night, Mr. Sharon sent to Mr. Bush his "appreciation of the bold and courageous decision of the president to fight terrorism." Israel will cooperate with the effort, the statement continued. It added that it was Israel's duty to "defend its citizens and to prevent any and all forms of terror attacks."
Under the terms of the cease-fire, which officially remains in effect, Israel was to stop all invasions of Palestinian-controlled territory and to begin withdrawing its forces.
In exchange, Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, pledged to deliver security for the Israelis. Each side accuses the other of reneging. Citing attacks in recent days on Israeli civilians, Mr. Sharon and his cabinet decided this week to return to using "all necessary measures" to protect Israelis.
The killing of the three Israelis on Thursday involved a novel method. It was the first time a Palestinian had disguised himself as an Israeli soldier, and Mr. Sharon referred to the attack in his remarks on Thursday night. "Do not try to appease the Arabs at our expense," he told Mr. Bush and other Western leaders. "We cannot accept this."
After the stern response from the White House today, normally loquacious Sharon advisers were notably quiet. Shimon Peres, the foreign minister and the staunchest advocate of peace talks in the government, noted that "the prime minister writes his own speeches." Yossi Sarid, the leader of the political opposition, accused Mr. Sharon of recklessly jeopardizing a crucial alliance.
The attacks continued today. Hanonia Ben Shalom, an Israeli citizen, was driving his Isuzu near the West Bank when he was shot in the back and killed. The shot was apparently fired from the West Bank, the Israeli Army reported.
The leader of Israel's forces in the West Bank, Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Gershon, said the army was compelled to act in Hebron today in part because of a sniper attack two days ago that wounded two Israeli women. "The operation was forced upon us," he said.
In Hebron, an ancient city set amid terraced vineyards, several hundred Israeli settlers live surrounded by more than 100,000 Palestinians. In 1997, parts of the city were handed over to Palestinian control.
General Gershon declined to say how long Israeli forces would occupy Harat al Sheik and Abu Sneina, the two neighborhoods that they entered today.
This afternoon, in the shade cast by a building, six Palestinian soldiers drank cups of sweet Arabic coffee, a half hour after trading shots with Israeli tanks, whose treads had carved ruts in Hebron's hilly streets.
Up the hill, near the new Israeli outposts, Issa Shabani reached into a plastic bag to display the shell casings — some, fired from helicopters, as long as and fat as rolls of quarters — that his grandchildren had collected. He gave a tour of the apartments in his building, their walls pocked by bullet holes as wide as half an inch.
Later, two Israeli Army jeeps arrived to escort out a news photographer whose vehicle had come under fire from an unknown source. As six soldiers in battle gear leaped out with M-16's leveled, two dozen Palestinians who had been chatting in the street simply vanished, without a word.October 5, 2001
Copyright 2001 The New York Times