By Eric Silver in Jerusalem
28 June 2004
Israeli forces pulled out of Nablus yesterday at the end of a three-day search and destroy operation in which they killed eight Palestinian gunmen and captured 12.
The official Palestinian news agency reported that the dead included local commanders of the three main militant groups: Nayef Abu Sharkh, 38, of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah party; Jafar al-Masri, 29, of Hamas; and Fadi Dugheish, 25, of Islamic Jihad.
All three were killed when soldiers hurled grenades into a concealed chamber where they were hiding. Four others died with them. The Israelis shot the eighth Palestinian as he was preparing to drop a cooking gas cylinder on them from a rooftop.
Abu Sharkh headed Israel's West Bank wanted list. Security sources accused him of planning and directing a double suicide bombing that killed 15 Israelis and eight foreign workers in Tel Aviv in January 2003, as well as other attacks on civilians and soldiers and on Palestinian businessmen who refused to obey his orders.
The Israelis said thetwisting lanes of the Nablus kasbahhad become a "terrorist command centre". A curfew imposed during the operation was lifted, but while troops had withdrawn from the old city, a military spokesman said the army remained entrenched in other parts of the West Bank's largest Arab city.
Israeli commentators hailed the raid as a blow also to Hizbollah, which Israel says is increasingly involved in funding and orchestrating their attacks. The Lebanese Shia militia was said to have been Abu Sharkh's principal paymaster.
Ahmed Qureia, the Palestinian Prime Minister, denounced the Israelis for committing "a brutal and ugly crime" in Nablus. The al-Aqsa Brigade vowed "unprecedented" revenge. "The retaliation will be like an earthquake," it said.
Israel was taking the threat seriously. The security services arrested three al-Aqsa men last Tuesday on their way to carry out a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. They know others will try to attack.
Israel's aggressive strategy and the controversial West Bank separation fence are making it difficult for the bombers to get through. There have been no attacks inside Israel since March, when two Gaza suicide bombers killed 10 workers in Ashdod port.
Roni Shaked, a military analyst, commented in the mass-circulation Yediot Ahronot yesterday: "The Palestinians' motivation to fight and kill remains high; it is just that their capabilities have been damaged and worn down. They have no problem recruiting new terrorists, but they are now far less experienced."
Figures released recently by the Shin Bet security service show a significant drop in infiltrations from Nablus and other parts of the northern West Bank since Israel began building the fence there. With 84 miles now completed, there were none in the first six months of this year, compared with 89 in 2002 and 46 in 2003.
Border police clashed at the weekend with 3,000 Palestinian, Israeli and international peace activists protesting against the latest stretch of fence at the northern entrance to Jeru- salem. Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli Arab MP, was treated for tear-gas poisoning.