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Israeli troops take positions in West Bank town

armored vehicles
Israeli armored vehicles enter Beit Jalah early Tuesday.  

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israel launched multiple incursions into the West Bank and Gaza early Tuesday and took over "dominant positions" in a West Bank town to stop Palestinians from shooting at a disputed Jerusalem suburb.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said a Palestinian police officer was killed and two others were wounded when Israel moved into Beit Jalah, south of Jerusalem in the West Bank.

The Israeli moves followed a day of angry protests from Palestinians over Israel's killing of Mustafa Zibri, a top Palestinian leader. Zibri, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, died in a rocket attack Monday in Ramallah.

The Israel Defense Forces said the incursion into Beit Jalah came after Palestinians fired into the Israeli neighborhood of Gilo Monday night.

Troops, tanks and armored vehicles, accompanied by helicopter gunships, moved into Beit Jalah overnight and occupied what military officials called "dominant positions" in the town.

CNN's Ben Wedeman says the Israeli move was anticipated by Palestinian forces (August 27)

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Amid continuing violence, Israelis and Palestinians are resolute about their aims. CNN's Jerrold Kessel reports (August 26)

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Palestinians say Israel's tactics may provoke extremists. CNN's Ben Wedeman reports (August 26)

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In-depth: Mideast Struggle for Peace  

"The army forces went in and will maintain necessary activity for a limited time in order to achieve the goals of the action," an Israeli military statement said.

Israeli security sources told CNN the incursion followed a plan called off two weeks ago by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon after Palestinians said they would not fire into Gilo, which Israel considers a suburb of Jerusalem. Palestinians consider it occupied territory.

Israel said Palestinians fired into Gilo for more than three hours in a major gun battle Monday night.

"The Israeli army will fulfill their mission taking care not to hurt innocent civilians and holy sites as much as possible. The army spokesman's office emphasizes that the IDF is carrying out a role that is supposed to be carried out by the Palestinian Authority, namely the prevention of fire against the residents of Jerusalem and the roads around," the military statement said.

In Gaza, witnesses said Israeli tanks demolished eight buildings in area west of Rafah near the Egyptian border before withdrawing.

An Israeli army spokesman said the action was taken because of "attempts to smuggle weapons into the Gaza Strip through underground tunnels, and continuous shooting towards the Israeli army forces that are on the Israeli-Egyptian border."

Palestinian hospital sources said 20 people were injured, including at least one critically and one seriously, in what witnesses called a heavy exchange of gunfire during the incursion.

The spokesman said the army destroyed unoccupied houses "used to cover for shooting, grenade throwing and arms smuggling." The army said the area is not under Palestinian control but is under Israeli control as mandated by the Oslo peace agreements.

Nearby, between Rafah and Khan Yunis, witnesses reported another incursion by the Israeli military and a heavy exchange of fire.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility for a mortar attack on the Israeli settlement of Kfar Darom in Gaza in retaliation for Zibri's death. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

Israel: Zibri killing 'pure self-defense'

Zibri was the highest-level Palestinian leader killed in Israeli strikes in the past 11 months of fighting, and his death provoked angry protests in Gaza.

Demonstrators flocked to give condolences to a very grim-faced Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat and other members of the Palestinian leadership as gunmen shot thousands of rounds into the air.

At least 33 Palestinian activists and 10 bystanders have been killed in Israeli raids since the current round of clashes began last September.

Israel said Zibri was behind eight car bombings and blamed the Popular Front for dozens of attacks on Israelis.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said Palestinians hold Sharon "personally responsible" for the incident and said Sharon is opening up "the gates of hell."

"Sharon today has crossed all red lines," Erakat said. "It's a start of a new Israeli policy, I believe. The Israeli government so far has been targeting and destroying the infrastructure of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority. Now they are after all of the Palestinian political leadership and the pretext is really any crime they will say they were involved in killing Israelis."

Sharon spokesman Ranaan Gissin called Zibri's killing "a pure act of self-defense."

"So maybe by taking him out now, we have saved the lives of scores of Israeli children and women who would have been his victims in the next terrorist attack," Gissin said.

Other Palestinian leaders denounced Israel's attack. Mustafa Barghouti, of the Palestinian People's Party, told CNN that Zibri's only crime was to speak out against the Israeli occupation.

"Israel claims that it is a democracy. What they are doing can only be done in a jungle," Barghouti said.

Earlier Monday, PFLP activists in Gaza staged demonstrations, burned tires and called for immediate attacks on Israeli settlements in Gaza.

Rubah Muhanna, a member of the PFLP political bureau, said: "I remind Sharon and remind Bush of the PFLP during the early '70s," referring to the period when the PFLP was active in the hijacking of commercial airliners.

U.S. condemns targeted killings

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said U.S. officials continue to oppose Israel's policy of targeted killings.

"We think Israel needs to understand that targeted killings of Palestinians don't end the violence, but are only inflaming an already volatile situation and making it much harder to restore calm," he said.

President Bush has recently criticized Palestinian terrorism and urged Arafat to do more to stop it.

Erakat said Monday, "It's time for President Bush to open and use his own eyes to see the truth."

"He cannot continue to depend on what his ears hear from Sharon's lips. ... This is a fatal mistake of the U.S. administration," Erakat said.

Gissin said the "Palestinians must realize terrorism doesn't pay. There is another way. We leave the door open for negotiations.

"Yasser Arafat goes around the world and speaks about peace and then comes back to the territory," Gissin said, "and the picture of him toting a submachine gun, you know, is splashed all over the screen. So you can decide for yourself what he wants. Does he want to talk peace or does he want to shoot? And it seems at this stage that they want to shoot."

In other developments Monday, an Israeli settler was shot and later died when gunmen opened fire in an ambush next to the Jewish settlement at Itamar near Nablus on the West Bank, Israeli officials said. In another incident, an Israeli police spokesman said an Israeli citizen was slightly wounded when gunmen opened fire on his car near Bet Shemesh, near the West Bank.

-- CNN Correspondents Jerrold Kessel and Ben Wedeman contributed to this report.

• Palestine Red Crescent Society
• Palestinian Authority
• Israel Defense Forces
• Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs
• United Nations

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