Bulldozers Raze W. Bank Stalls

Times Staff Writer

Israeli bulldozers rumbled forth at dawn Tuesday to raze dozens of Palestinian shops in a West Bank open-air market that was once a peaceful gathering place for both Arabs and Jews.

To Israel, the demolition of the roadside stands at Nazlat Issa was the straightforward squelching of renegade construction, a reminder of the importance of permits. But to Palestinians, it was a deliberate swipe at an economy already fractured by months of warfare and an ominous display of force along the contentious West Bank border.

"People's lives depend on those shops," said Hasan Khreisheh, a Palestinian official who said he tried to reach the market to protest the destruction but turned back when Israeli soldiers fired tear gas. "The world should intervene."

Hundreds of Israeli soldiers stood guard while a group of bulldozers carried out the biggest West Bank demolition in years. Protesters chanted against the occupation and hurled rocks at the troops; soldiers lobbed tear gas and stun grenades and fired rubber bullets. Neither side reported any serious injuries.

Talia Somech, a spokeswoman for Israel's West Bank administration, said villagers were given ample time to haul away their wares.

The government dismantled 28 shops, she said, because they were built illegally and were a traffic hazard. More were likely to be demolished, she said.

"It's hazardous -- it's right on the side of the road, and it's a problem," Somech said. "This demolition business, we don't take it lightly."

Israel has drawn hard criticism -- including a reproof from the U.S. -- for laying waste to hundreds of Palestinian homes in recent months. Some have been razed during combat raids on villages and towns; others have been destroyed because they belonged to militants who attacked Israel.

Merchants and city officials said the shops destroyed Tuesday had proper permits and were in good legal standing.

Mayor Ziad Salem said the bulldozers toppled 62 businesses in what he called "the destruction of the economy of our village."

Nazlat Issa rises from the fields on the western edge of the West Bank. It's a Palestinian hamlet, but its marketplace sits on the Israeli side of an army checkpoint and residents say they expect their village to be fenced into Israel once workers finish constructing a security barrier along the border.

Although its geography is awkward in times of war, Nazlat Issa flourished during the peaceful years before the current Palestinian uprising. In those days, droves of Israelis ventured into the open-air market to fill their cars with low-cost pottery, furniture, embroidery and fruit.

Savvy Palestinians uprooted businesses from towns deeper in the West Bank and set up shop in the sprawling complex of vegetable stands, shops built of aluminum, and clinics. But with the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000, the weekend stream of Israeli customers thinned.

Israeli officials had been threatening to destroy the market for months, merchants said Tuesday.

In the end, shopkeeper Khader Kharbat said, he was given just two hours to salvage thousands of dollars worth of cooking utensils.

"They want to destroy our business and our life," said another shopkeeper, Jamal Majdleh.

"They want to destroy everything."

It was a tense day throughout the Palestinian territories Tuesday.

Residents of Ramallah awoke to find the West Bank city clamped under curfew while Israeli soldiers hunted for a pair of prisoners who had escaped from the Ofer detention camp on the outskirts of the city. The militant group Islamic Jihad claimed that the two men were members and had "reached safety" by midday, Israel Radio said.

There was more trouble along the border Tuesday night, when police discovered about 660 pounds of explosives in a car near the Israeli Arab city of Umm al Fahm. After police stopped the vehicle, three men escaped.

Meanwhile, a cease-fire negotiation among the various militant Palestinian factions set to begin in Cairo today was delayed when both Hamas and Islamic Jihad pulled out. The meeting plans had been hampered by infighting over which groups should be included.

Egypt had hoped to get the groups to discuss a yearlong halt on terrorist attacks against Israel. Late Tuesday, officials reported progress in getting the talks back on track but said that they would be delayed by at least a day.

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