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Thursday, 30 August, 2001, 00:23 GMT 01:23 UK
US condemns Israeli incursion
Palestinian gunmen in Beit Jala
Fighting continues in Beit Jala despite a truce
The United States has strongly criticised Israel's incursion into the Palestinian town of Beit Jala, saying it might be in breach of international agreements.

As America voiced its objections, gunfire continued into the night in the West Bank town, despite an earlier truce which aimed to lead to Israel's withdrawal.

There is a fundamental issue here, and that's trying to reverse agreements and understandings

Richard Boucher, State Department spokesman
US Secretary of State Colin Powell, meanwhile, appealed to both sides to try to restore calm.

Israel sent troops and tanks into the flashpoint town early on Tuesday to try to end Palestinian gun attacks on nearby Gilo, a settlement which Israelis regard as a Jewish neighbourhood of Jerusalem.

US diplomacy

Mr Powell told Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat the United States was "pressing" Israel to withdraw from Beit Jala.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Mr Powell also called on Mr Arafat "to do everything he can" to end the continuing violence.

The Secretary of State later spoke to both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres "about how to achieve an end to the violence", said Mr Boucher.

America sharply criticised Israel's decision to send its forces into Beit Jala, saying there was "a fundamental issue here, and that's trying to reverse agreements and understandings that have been made in the past".

A BBC correspondent in Washington says the statement was the clearest indication so far from the US administration that it believes Israel may have gone a step too far.

Earlier, Mr Peres and Mr Arafat agreed to a tentative ceasefire under which Israeli troops would withdraw from the town once calm had been restored, but fierce fighting has continued.

Truce broken

Israel said the Palestinians fired at Gilo, about half a kilometre (one-third of a mile) from Beit Jala, as soon as the truce went into effect.

Palestinians said they fired their guns into the air in celebration of the truce, which Israel mistook for gunfire aimed at Gilo.

Palestinians prepare to fire mortars
Five mortars are reported to have been fired at Gilo from Beit Jala
After nightfall, an Israeli tank shell hit a building in the centre of Beit Jala, injuring two people, according to witnesses.

Earlier, five mortar bombs landed on Gilo, causing damage but no casualties, the Associated Press news agency reported.

Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Israel had no plans to reoccupy Beit Jala but if Palestinian attacks on Gilo resumed, Israel would "absolutely" move back into the town.

Mr Sharon said two weeks ago Israel would send troops into Beit Jala if attacks on Gilo continued.

Israel's foray into the mainly Christian town is the longest-lasting incursion into a Palestinian-administered area by Israeli forces since the Palestinian uprising began last September.

In April, Israel withdrew its forces from Palestinian-controlled areas of the Gaza Strip a few hours after the US Secretary of State condemned that incursion.

The BBC's Caroline Hawley
"Israeli tanks rolled into Beit Jala on Monday night"
The BBC's Raphael Jesurum
reports from the village of Beit Jala
The BBC's Jon Leyne
says that the US is strongly condemning the Israeli incursion into Beit Jala
See also:

29 Aug 01 | Middle East
Israel to leave Palestinian town
28 Aug 01 | Middle East
US calls on Israel to withdraw
16 Aug 01 | Middle East
Spotlight: Why is Gilo so important?
28 Aug 01 | Middle East
Thousands attend Mustafa funeral
28 Aug 01 | Middle East
In pictures: Mustafa funeral
28 Aug 01 | Middle East
Palestinian shock turns to outrage
28 Aug 01 | Media reports
Mid-East press condemns Mustafa killing
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