The purpose of the raid was to signal to the Palestinians that the Israeli army could, and would, permanently occupy the area if shooting persists, Israeli officials said.
“We carried out a limited operation to solve a specific problem and indicate that we have no problem going up there when there is a problem that is intolerable,” Deputy Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon told Israel Radio.
The army blew up two houses in Palestinian-controlled Abu Sneineh in retaliation for a sniper attack that wounded two young Jewish settlers yesterday. Three Palestinians were wounded in a gunfight with the troops, and one elderly woman died of a heart attack.
The army withdrew from the area three hours after the incursion began.
The army believes Palestinian snipers used the abandoned houses, located on a strategic rise, as bases from which to shoot at settlers. Palestinians in the area said gunmen did not use those buildings, but actually fired from positions further down the hill.
Palestinians in Hebron said that the raid only strengthened their will to fight against Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Recent efforts to begin peace talks between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres have been unsuccessful. Israel has said it will not start peace talks until Palestinian violence ends. Arafat has blamed Israel for stalling the negotiations and for encouraging more violence.
“We see no point, no use in any meeting with any Israeli official,” senior Arafat aide Ahmed Abdel-Rahman told Reuters. “We are left with no choice but to escalate the Intifada until the removal of the occupation and settlers from our land.
President Bush decried the violence initiated by both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, but today appealed mostly to Arafat to stop the violence.
“The Israelis have made it very clear that they will not negotiate under terrorist threat and if Mr. Arafat is interested in having a dialogue… then I strongly urge him to urge the terrorists, the Palestinian terrorists, to stop the suicide bombing,” President Bush said.
Hebron, 20 miles south of Jerusalem, is an ancient city of 120,000 sacred to both Jews and Muslims as the burial place of the biblical Abraham.
In 1997, Israel handed much of the West Bank city over to the Palestinians in an interim peace deal, but it kept control of the city’s ancient center. About 500 Jewish settlers live in four guarded enclaves amidst 30,000 Palestinians.
The Jewish settlers, the targets of Palestinian sniper attacks, have demanded for months that Israeli forces take Abu Sneineh.
“We are sorry that the Israeli army… went back,” said Noam Arnon, a spokesman for the settlers. “The Israeli army should stay on this hill and ensure the lives of the Jews in Hebron.”
Almost 700 people have been killed since the Palestinian uprising began last September. There have been more than 530 Palestinian and 150 Israeli deaths. Thirteen Palestinians were killed this week.