Israel Poised To Strike PA-Controlled Bethlehem

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

Jerusalem ( - Israeli tanks and troops moved into position around the Bethlehem area overnight after a day of heavy shooting on the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo from a nearby Palestinian-controlled town.

Poised to enter the Palestinian Authority-ruled Bethlehem area, Israeli forces as of Wednesday midday have yet to move in, prompting speculation as to what may have stopped or delayed an incursion.

An Israeli army spokeswoman would only say that the army had repositioned its troops and tanks within areas under Israeli control, which it had the right to do.

U.S. pressure may have been behind an Israeli decision to hold back on entering Bethlelem and neighboring Beit Jala.

Earlier, the White House condemned as "provocative" an Israeli incursion into another PA town, Jenin, on Tuesday. Israeli forces leveled the PA police headquarters there in retaliation for a string of attacks by suicide bombers, some of whom had come from the Jenin area.

Israeli radio reported that Foreign Minister Shimon Peres had persuaded his cabinet colleague, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, to postpone the planned action in order to give him time to negotiate a ceasefire with the PA.

Ben-Eliezer denied that he had been pressured by either the U.S. or Peres to suspend any planned action. He said he had received intelligence information that had persuaded him to give the other side a chance to maintain the calm.

"Information reached me that [PA Chairman] Yasser Arafat was making every effort in order to stop this [the shooting on Jerusalem] and it's finished," he told reporters.

The Israeli forces, meanwhile, remain on the borders of Bethlehem Wednesday afternoon, with the threat of imminent attack hanging over the residents. Ben-Eliezer warned that any shooting at the capital would invite a response.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon meanwhile has been explaining the situation to the Americans.

A diplomatic source confirmed that Sharon had met U.S. ambassador Daniel Kurtzer and visiting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield.

He has "clarified Israel's position regarding the shooting" attacks on Jerusalem, telling them that it was "intolerable," the source said.

Sharon told a police gathering earlier that anyone choosing terrorism would pay "a political price."

Israel Friday took over Palestinian institutions in eastern Jerusalem in response to a deadly suicide bomb attack in the city. The action prompted international condemnation, and the PA called for U.N. Security Council intervention.

"If the violence continues, the Palestinians will lose additional assets and they have plenty to lose," Sharon told the meeting.

Jerusalem's mayor, Ehud Olmert, said it was time Israel struck back at the gunmen who regularly target homes in Gilo.

"We can no longer accept such a situation ... not even once more," he said. "We need a massive land operation, like the one in Jenin."

Gilo straddles the 1967 border between Israel and what was at the time Jordanian-occupied territory, atop a ridge facing the towns of Beit Jala and Bethlehem. The growing Jerusalem suburb today is home to some 40,000 residents.

Since last fall, Palestinian gunmen have taken up positions in the homes in Beit Jala, firing across the valley at the front line of Israeli homes and drawing heavy retaliatory fire on the primarily Christian town.

See also:Palestinian Christians Caught In The Crossfire (May 8, 2001)