Israeli helicopter gunships opened fire in the West Bank and Gaza Strip today after a Palestinian mob killed two Israeli soldiers.
Witnesses said helicopters fired in the vicinity of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Gaza City, but the building was not hit and the Palestinian leader was not in the building during the attack.
Palestinian hospital officials said 17 people were wounded in the attacks.
President Clinton today strongly condemned the killings of the Israeli soldiers and said he understood the “anguish” felt by Palestinians, but that there was “no possible justification for mob violence.”
He called on both sides to work immediately for a cease-fire, and to condemn all acts of violence.
The use of helicopter gunships by Israelis has been seen as a clear escalation of hostilities in the region and has drawn strong reactions from the Palestinian side.
Black columns of smoke rose from Gaza City, and plumes of smoke curled above Ramallah, where witnesses said a radio transmission building, near Arafat’s office in the city, was hit.
The Israeli attack came shortly after Arafat met with CIA Director George Tenet in Gaza City.
It was the toughest Israeli military operation against the Palestinians in two weeks of violence in which at least 96 people have been killed, almost all Arabs.
Israeli helicopter gunships fired missiles that knocked the Voice of Palestine radio off the air, witnesses said.
In Ramallah, Israeli rockets hit the police station where the killings of the Israeli soldiers took place and the official Palestinian TV station, which had been broadcasting extensive video of the violent clashes of the past two weeks.
The police station was reduced to rubble, and flames were pouring from a second building.
Israel is also keeping Palestinians from leaving their communities in the West Bank.
More Reprisals, If Necessary
Hours after the launch of the attack, during which Israel gunships rocketed five targets in Ramallah and Gaza City, Danny Yatom, a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, announced that the round of assaults were over.
However, Yatom warned of further reprisals, if necessary. “If the Palestinian Authority succeeds to do what Arafat promised so many times — to stop the violence, to stop the terror and to stop the shooting at our people, we won’t take action,” he said.
“If the Palestinian Authority doesn’t succeed … we will be forced to defend ourselves and take action,” Yatom said.
The Israeli Cabinet is holding an emergency meeting today.
Mob Attacks Israeli Soldiers
The Israeli attack came hours after Palestinian youths in Ramallah seized four Israeli soldiers, described by the Israeli army as “uniformed reservists,” killing two and seriously injuring one, who was taken to hospital. The fourth soldier is believed to have escaped.
In what the Israeli army called a “lynching,” at least one body was tossed out of a window into a crowd of hundreds of youths in Palestinian-ruled Ramallah, witnesses said. A car in which the soldiers apparently had been traveling was burned.
Israeli radio said the bodies of the two soldiers were taken to an Israeli army liaison office near Ramallah, where a military doctor pronounced them dead. Palestinian police sources said the two were stabbed to death.
An ABCNEWS team in Ramallah was attacked as they were photographing the attack on the Israeli soldiers.
The news team reported about 2,000 youths stormed the police station building and they saw one of the bodies being thrown from the second-floor window. The body was carried away by the mob, and then the town shut down in apparent anticipation of an Israeli retaliation.
“When we started shooting [filming] the stabbing and throwing [of] the bodies … then the youths came to us and they stopped us with some knives, with some beating,” said Nasser Atta, an ABCNEWS producer.
Annan: Incident Complicates Peace
As the violence escalated, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan cut short his visit to Lebanon today.
Annan, who went to Lebanon to discuss the fate of three Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah guerrillas, said before leaving for Israel that the killings of the two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah would complicate efforts to ease tensions in the Middle East.
“This doesn’t facilitate but it complicates the issues we are trying to resolve,” Annan told reporters after talks with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud in Beirut.
Annan flew to the Lebanese capital after intensive talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Israel and Gaza.
Annan said the questions about the fate of the three Israeli soldiers captured by Lebanon’s Hezbollah last week also aggravated the volatile situation.
The pro-Palestinian Hezbollah snatched the three Israeli soldiers during a confrontation Saturday near the Israeli-Lebanon border. Hezbollah is demanding at least 19 Lebanese jailed in Israel be freed in exchange for the soldiers’ release.
CIA Director Tenet was also visiting the region in an attempt to find a way to bring an immediate end to the deadly violence. He met with Arafat today, but other details of his trip were being kept under wraps due to security concerns.
The World Reacts
International reaction to the bombing has been swift and strong.
While strongly condemning the killing of the two Israeli soldiers, President Clinton today urged Palestinians and Israelis to stop the violence.
“I call on both sides to undertake a cease-fire immediately and immediately to condemn all acts of violence,” he said. “Now is the time to stop the bloodshed, to restore calm, to return to dialogue and ultimately to the negotiating table.”
Addressing reporters in the White House Rose Garden today, Clinton said there was no choice but for the two sides to return to the peace process. “The alternative to the peace process is now no longer merely hypothetical, ” he said. “It is unfolding today before our very eyes. ”
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov described the developments as “negative” and said it was premature to speak of a breakthrough in easing the two-week bout of violence.
Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi called on the international community today to press Israel to stop attacking Palestinian cities.
“The whole world has to tell Israel to stop shelling civilians, to stop shelling our towns, and to move out of the occupied territories,” Ashrawi told Britain’s ITN News Channel.
But Ashrawi did not say whether Palestinians planned to retaliate in kind for today’s attacks.
Israel, meanwhile, said the helicopter attacks were a restrained, “token” response to the lynching of its two soldiers.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair called for calm in the Middle East and talked to President Clinton about reviving political dialogue.
ABCNEWS’ Andrew Morse in Jerusalem, Rebecca Cooper at the State Department, Bassem Barhoum in Ramallah and Sue Masterman in Vienna and The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.