Israel moved tank and infantry battalions near the West Bank towns of Bethlehem and Jenin early today, its largest West Bank troop movement in 10 months of fighting with the Palestinians.
The beefing-up of forces came after a day of escalation that saw Israel kill two Islamic militants and two others in a helicopter gunship attack and the Palestinians for the first time fire mortar shells in the West Bank. Two shells fired from Beit Jala fell near the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. No one was injured.
Palestinian officials said they feared Israel was preparing to invade territory they control. Israel Radio, citing senior military sources, said the deployment was intended to "warn" the Palestinians against firing on Jerusalem, but it also said that senior military officers were awaiting a government decision to respond harshly to the mortar attack. Israel Television said that the units were deployed to help Israel recapture territory if the situation continues to deteriorate.
Israel's security Cabinet was to meet today to discuss options.
"These huge numbers of military units, tanks and heavy artillery have only one goal, which is to attack the Palestinian National Authority," said Ahmed Abdel Rahman, an aide to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. "These reinforcements are pushing the fragile situation to the edge of explosion."
The latest violence began Tuesday afternoon when Israeli helicopter gunships fired five missiles into a cinderblock hut in Bethlehem, killing four men. The Israelis said two were militants in the Hamas Islamic movement planning to attack the closing ceremonies of the Maccabiah Games. The quadrennial sporting event, known as the Jewish Olympics, opened in Jerusalem on Monday.
In the ever-tightening spiral of attack and retaliation that has left a U.S.-brokered cease-fire in tatters, Palestinians responded within hours by firing a mortar shell at a neighborhood on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem.
The shell landed in the backyard of an unfinished home in Gilo, a neighborhood built on land Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War.
Israeli troops responded by shooting at Bethlehem and Beit Jala, a short distance from Gilo. Palestinian gunmen returned fire, shattering windows in some Gilo homes. One Israeli woman was slightly hurt by broken glass. Shooting echoed through southern Jerusalem for hours. Then, about 11 p.m., the army reported that a second mortar had fallen on a road near Gilo that leads into the West Bank.
Palestinians have fired many mortar shells on Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip, but the West Bank is closer to Israeli population centers.
In the West Bank, the committee of various Palestinian factions that says it is leading the uprising against Israel's military occupation vowed to seek revenge for the four men killed in Bethlehem, and said it will no longer honor the cease-fire brokered by CIA Director George J. Tenet last month.
The army said the airstrike on the shed about half a mile from the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Christ, prevented an attack on Israelis and visiting athletes from around the world.
"It was a very well-prepared, pinpoint operation against a Hamas terrorist cell, which likely was planning an attack on a Maccabiah event," said Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz, the army's spokesman in Jerusalem. He said that one of those killed was the leader of a Hamas cell in Bethlehem that he described as "very active" in attacking Israeli soldiers and civilians.
Palestinian sources confirmed that two of the men--Taha Aruj and Omar Saadeh--were militants in Hamas. But the sources said that Mohammed Saadeh, Omar's cousin, and a fourth victim whose name was not available were not activists.
Another man was badly wounded in the attack, according to Dr. Peter Qumri, director of Beit Jala Hospital.
Abdulaziz Rantisi, a Hamas leader in Gaza, denounced the airstrike as the slaying of "civilians." He said Hamas has learned that "the only way to force the Israelis to stop their terrorism against our people is to retaliate."
Tuesday night, thousands of Gazans demonstrated in support of Hamas and called for revenge.
Hamas and another militant group, Islamic Jihad, have carried out a string of bombings in Israel. The most recent was an attack Monday by an Islamic Jihad bomber who killed himself and two soldiers at a bus stop in Binyamina, a small town between Tel Aviv and Haifa.
The Binyamina attack came as about 3,000 Jewish athletes from Israel and around the world prepared to launch the Maccabiah that was nearly canceled this year because of the security worries of the Jewish athletes from abroad. The gala opening event, guarded by massive security forces, went on Monday as planned in Jerusalem.
A government spokesman had vowed that Israel would retaliate for the Binyamina bombing, and Israeli tanks shelled Palestinian security outposts in two West Bank towns late Monday. Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer's office announced that he was canceling a U.S. visit to deal with the security situation. Ben-Eliezer had been scheduled to leave today for meetings in Washington and New York.
The helicopter attack came after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Ben-Eliezer came under withering criticism from right-wing members of the government Tuesday morning for the army's initial response to the Binyamina bombing. Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, a conservative Cabinet minister who says he intends to form an opposition bloc to Sharon within the government, called the army's shelling of security outposts a "miserable and ridiculous show of muscle."
Sharon has come under mounting pressure from members of the Cabinet and Jewish settlers to abandon Israel's increasingly qualified observance of the cease-fire. They are advocating that the government give up any hope of reaching a negotiated end to the fighting--which has raged since late September and killed more than 600 people, most of them Palestinians--and deliver a crushing blow to the Palestinian Authority.
Israeli President Moshe Katsav added his voice Tuesday to those calling for Sharon to change his policy. Katsav told Israel Radio that the "policy of restraint" cannot continue.
So far, Sharon has rejected all such calls, although the government now says its policy is to respond immediately and harshly to any attack on Israelis, regardless of whether there are casualties. Tension is mounting in both the West Bank and Gaza and in Israel, where security precautions are reaching unprecedented levels in anticipation of further bombing attacks.