Israel Hunting For Suicide Bombers Believed To Be On The Loose

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Samaria, West Bank ( - Suicide bombers regularly pass through Palestinian Authority controlled Ramallah on the way to their final destinations, which has prompted Israel's tight closure on the area, a high-ranking Israeli military officer said Thursday.

Speaking to an army tour for journalists, the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was up to politicians to argue about peace and the future of Israeli settlements in disputed areas, but it is the duty of the army to protect Israelis who live there and to prevent terrorists from getting into Israel to perpetrate attacks.

Israeli communities in the disputed areas are a focal point in the Israeli-PA conflict. Various militant groups, including leaders of PA Chairman Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction, have vowed that there will be no end to the 10-month old violent uprising, until the more than 200,000 settlers who live there are evacuated from their homes. Israel considers the areas to be part of their Biblical inheritance.

"Our mission is to give security to the Israelis here," the officer said. "We are not attacking...[only] responding."

He added that he didn't like to see Palestinians confined to their cities, but he said it is "effective" for preventing terrorists from getting into Israel.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians have been prevented from reaching jobs in Israel since the outbreak of violence last fall. It is also difficult and sometimes impossible for them to travel between different sections of PA controlled areas.

There have been more than 6,500 terrorist attacks in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel during the last 46 weeks, in which 153 Israelis have been killed, the officer said.

More than 500 Palestinians and 13 Israeli Arabs have also been killed during that time, primarily in clashes with Israeli security forces and as a result of retaliatory actions.

A week ago, a suicide bomber managed to evade authorities and reach the heart of Jerusalem where he detonated explosives in a downtown restaurant, killing 15 and wounding more than 100 others.

Three days later, another suicide attacker killed himself and injured 15 others in a second restaurant bombing.

"Israel knows nowadays that in the PA cities and villages there are several suicide bombers waiting [to carry out attacks]," said Col. Ilan Paz, brigade commander of the 1,100 square kilometer Benyamin region, which includes PA-controlled Ramallah.

"It's our job to prevent [the attacks]," Paz said.

There are some 300,000 Palestinians living in more than 100 villages and 60,000 Israelis in 60 settlements in the area under Paz' command. Ramallah, the largest Palestinian city in the area, is a center for the PA authorities.

Palestinians Await Media Before Throwing Stones

One of the entrances to Ramallah, the Ayosh Junction, has been closed for months. It is still a hot spot for Palestinian clashes with Israeli soldiers.

The road leading into the city there is blackened from the fighting; the surrounding area is littered with baseball and football-sized rocks, the remnants of previous demonstrations.

Nearly every Friday after Moslem prayers, the Palestinian youth come out to this intersection to demonstrate.

"They are waiting for two things," Paz said - Palestinian ambulances and the television cameras. Without the media, they don't have a reason to demonstrate, he added.

According to Paz, he has offered to re-open the intersection if his PA counterpart will prevent rioting there. But his offer has been refused, he said, because he has been told that the area, where several Palestinians have been killed, is a symbol of the Palestinian struggle and a monument to war. Vestiges

Several hundred yards from the Ayosh Junction is one of the last vestiges of the Oslo Peace Accords - a District Coordinating Office where Israeli and Palestinian security officials still work together.

The compound, built in 1992, is divided by only a chain link fence. The officers on both sides there invest a certain amount of trust in their counterparts on the other side.

Lt. Col. Radwan Manzoun, head of the Israeli side of the DCO, said relations exist between Israel and the PA 24 hours a day. Those relations are based in part on personal contacts and the DCO tries to guard them, he said.

Most recently, the PA's DCO officers turned over the body of a 17-year-old Israeli, who disappeared from a north Jerusalem neighborhood and was discovered dead in PA-controlled territory. His body was one of six transferred to Israel through the Ramallah DCO since last September.

Ironically, the Palestinian and Israeli flags flutter side by side over the boundary fence.

But Manzoun pointed to the giant concrete fortification wall, which now surrounds the perimeter of the Israeli side of the DCO, as a sign of the reality of the situation. The PA's side has no need for such a wall, he said.