Report: Israeli Soldier Killed In Fierce Bethlehem Gun Battle

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

Jerusalem ( - Heavy exchanges of gunfire, a car bomb explosion, and a reported Israeli hit on a Palestinian terrorist characterized Israeli-Palestinian hostilities Monday, as the Palestinian Authority officially called on President Bush to become more involved in resolving the conflict.

A news agency reported an Israeli soldier was killed and seven Palestinians wounded in heavy fighting near the Israeli army outpost at Rachel's tomb in Bethlehem.

The Israeli army would not confirm the death and gave only sketchy details about the battle, which raged for hours and was continuing after dark. Tanks, small missiles and grenades were used to bombard PA positions, setting several buildings on fire, according to initial reports.

Residents in nearby Jerusalem could hear the sounds of the battle in the distance, and tank fire shook residential areas of the city.

A car bomb exploded near a soldier's hitchhiking station in nearby PA-controlled Nablus, north of Jerusalem. There were no injuries.

Earlier in the day, an Islamic Jihad activist was killed when an Israeli helicopter fired missiles at his van in the Gaza Strip. The army had no immediate comment on the incident, which was the first assassination of a Palestinian militant in a month.

In recent months, Israel has killed more than a dozen Palestinians suspected of planning or carrying out terror attacks, in what it terms "pinpoint" operations.

The U.S. has condemned such attacks, but Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Bush in Washington he should not to be surprised that Israel "will punish terrorists and those who send them."

According to security sources, 29-year-old Mohammed Abdel Al, a senior member of the military wing of Islamic Jihad, was linked to numerous terrorist attacks beginning in 1994, and including the planting of four bombs recently in the Gaza Strip settlement.

He was also believed to have been involved in planning a double-suicide bomb attack at a soldier's hitchhiking station in 1995, in which 22 soldiers were killed, and two suicide attacks in 1997, the sources said. He was in the late stages of planning an additional terrorist attack, they added.

The West Bank leader of Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization, Marwan Barghouti, called Monday's helicopter strike a "serious escalation," and said it would not stop the Palestinian uprising.

But Israeli army spokesman Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz said he would not describe the situation as an escalation.

"We are in an ongoing situation of violence with the Palestinian side," Rafowicz said. The ... popular uprising is finished, Rafowicz added. "[This is] an armed conflict with the Palestinians."

Overnight an Israeli reserve soldier was shot and killed by a Palestinian gunman in exchanges of fire. A Palestinian organization calling itself the "Return Brigades" claimed responsibility for killing 23-year-old Ya'akov Krenchel, in retaliation for the Israeli killing of five Palestinians in Land Day riots last Friday.

Earlier, Israeli commandos crossed into PA-controlled territories and arrested five members of Arafat's elite Force 17 unit and another Palestinian suspected of being involved in terrorist attacks.

Gaza Preventive Security Chief Mohammed Dahlan condemned the capture of the six and called it a "new escalation."

According to Rafowicz, the Palestinians want the situation to be seen as an escalation. He did not elaborate, but the PA has been trying to persuade the international community and United Nations Security Council to send international observers to the area.

"In this kind of conflict ... we're in for a very long run. Israel is ready for a long run," he said.

Meanwhile, the PA officially called on Washington to renew its role as chief mediator leading Israeli-Palestinian talks.

"We ask the United States to resume its leadership and mediating role in the current conflict," PA Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said in a statement.

He said recent statements by the U.S. administration indicated "unconditional support for Prime Minister Sharon's measures and positions in the current conflict [and] an alarmingly wholesale adoption of Sharon's policies by the United States, rather than the formulation of an independent and unbiased United States policy."

The U.S. has backed Sharon's policy not to resume negotiations with the PA until the violence stops. But Arab nations and the PA are calling on talks to resume immediately at the point they left off in January.

Sharon has said he will not honor any verbal pacts, such as those reached in Taba, Egypt shortly before the elections, but will only abide by ratified agreements.