Nine Killed in Hebron Raid; Israel Agrees to Lift Restrictions on Arafat

The attack came after Israelis and Palestinians agreed to a U.S.-brokered deal to end the standoff at Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s compound in Ramallah.

In all, six of the nine Palestinians killed in Hebron were civilians. Most died in a helicopter attack on a one-story building where at least one gunman was hiding.

According to Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, officials captured several militants on Israel’s most wanted list, uncovered two suitcases filled with explosives and disabled a car bomb. He told reporters troops wouldn’t remain in Hebron long.

“We went there to hit that infrastructure [of Palestinian terrorist groups] and to get out quickly,” he said.

The incursion came as part of the manhunt for militants suspected in an attack on the nearby Jewish settlement of Adora that killed four Israelis Saturday, Israeli officials said. The militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for the strike.

The offensive began just hours after the Israeli cabinet agreed to a U.S. proposal to end the siege of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah. Israeli and Palestinian officials said Arafat could now travel freely, which he has not been able to do since Israel first began his confinement in December, but Israeli tanks continued to surround his headquarters Monday.

Israel also dropped its demand for the extradition of six Palestinian militants, including four men accused in the assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi in October. The six, currently holed up in Arafat’s Ramallah compound, will be transferred to a prison in Jericho where U.S. and British officials would supervise their imprisonment.

Arafat’s aides said the Palestinian leader is unlikely to leave his compound until the men are transferred to Jericho, for fear that Israeli troops would seize them if he left.

Despite the weekend’s diplomatic progress, Palestinian officials expressed anger and frustration over Israel’s attack on Hebron.

“The moment we accepted the American proposal [on Arafat’s confinement], we have an incursion into Hebron,” Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said. “Every time we show good will … Israel slaps us in the face.”

President Bush’s proposal did not address the ongoing standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where an Israeli sniper on Monday shot dead a Palestinian militant who had walked from the church into a courtyard.

Israeli troops and some 200 Palestinian militants inside the church have held a tense standoff at the church for nearly a month.

Meanwhile, wrangling continues between Israel and the United Nations over a proposed U.N. fact-finding mission to the Jenin refugee camp, where Palestinians say Israel troops murdered hundreds of innocent civilians. Israel has repeatedly denied the charge, saying Israeli troops killed several dozen Palestinian gunmen during fierce battles.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Gideon Meir accused the U.N. of having an anti-Israel bias and said the fact-finders would not be allowed in until Israeli demands for changes to the mission are met. The U.N. team had been scheduled to arrive in Israel Saturday.

“I think we have to disagree with the United Nations now, even at the cost of world opinion,” Meir said. “They want to set us up.”

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