Five West Bank militants are killed by Israeli troops

Times Staff Writer

Israeli troops killed five Palestinian militants in the West Bank on Wednesday in a move that set back attempts to secure a cease-fire with armed groups firing rockets from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Three of the dead were Islamic Jihad militants, and the group retaliated by firing 12 rockets overnight toward the Israeli town of Sderot, causing minimal damage.

Abu Ahmed, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad in Gaza City, said the barrage was only the start of the group’s response.


The Israeli Foreign Ministry on Wednesday also announced sanctions against Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based Arabic-language news channel, in response to what it charged was biased coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israeli soldiers and police launched a joint operation Wednesday in Bethlehem to capture Mohammed Shehada, a senior West Bank military leader of Islamic Jihad.

An Israeli army spokeswoman said the soldiers spotted Shehada and three other men in a car, concluded they were armed and opened fire, killing all four.

One of the men, according to Palestinian sources, was Ahmed Balbul, 48, a senior leader in the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the militant wing of the Fatah movement, which controls the Palestinian Authority.

Shehada, 48, was accused by Israeli officials of having planned a series of attacks, including a car bombing in Jerusalem in 2000 and a 2001 suicide bombing there near the David Citadel Hotel, formerly the Hilton. Israel launched a raid to capture him last week but failed, demolishing his family home in the attempt.

“He was involved in extensive terrorist activity from the earliest days of the intifada,” or Palestinian uprising, said the army spokeswoman, who requested anonymity.


An Islamic Jihad spokesman confirmed that Shehada and two others were part of the group’s military wing.

Earlier in the day, a separate operation near the West Bank city of Tulkarm killed another militant allied with the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

The killings came amid efforts by Egypt to mediate a cease-fire in Gaza. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are responsible for firing most of the rockets that hit Israeli territory.

Representatives of Islamic Jihad have been taking part in the talks, and any lasting cease-fire agreement would have to come with the concurrence of its leadership.

Abu Ahmed said Wednesday’s killings showed the futility of negotiations with Israel. “The only option left is the option of resistance,” he said. “We will respond with all our power.”

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said any cease-fire would depend on a complete halt to all Israeli operations in both Gaza and the West Bank.

The sanctions announced against Al Jazeera reportedly include an embargo on Israeli officials appearing on the satellite television channel and a ban on its reporters entering Israeli government buildings.

Efforts to reach the Israeli Foreign Ministry for comment were unsuccessful, but Deputy Foreign Minister Majalli Whbee told Army Radio that Al Jazeera presented consistently biased reports of the recent Israeli army operation in the Gaza Strip that killed more than 100 Palestinians.

“These reports are untrustworthy and they hurt us, and they arouse people to terrorist activities,” Whbee said.

The channel’s Jerusalem bureau chief, Walid Omary, called the accusations of bias “rubbish” and said he hadn’t officially been informed of any sanctions.

“We will continue to work and continue to invite Israeli officials to the studio,” Omary said by telephone from Qatar.

After a Palestinian gunman killed eight religious students in a Jerusalem yeshiva March 6, Al Jazeera reported live from the scene.

The news crew had to be escorted away by police in the face of a hostile crowd, Omary said. “We broadcast the reality, and the reality is ugly -- both in Gaza and at the yeshiva.”

Since its debut in 1996, Al Jazeera, which is partially funded by the Qatari government, has faced accusations of bias from both Israel and a host of Arab governments.

The Iraqi government has repeatedly sought to ban the channel or limit its reporters’ activities. In May, an Al Jazeera journalist in Egypt was sentenced to six months in jail for “harming the country’s reputation” while working on a story about torture in police stations. The jail term was later overturned on appeal.


Special correspondents Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, and Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.