By Izzat Ramini and Agencies
Israeli helicopter gunships launched a rocket attack overnight on a Palestinian refugee camp near the West Bank town of Bethlehem in a fresh outbreak of unrest amid faltering efforts to restore calm to the region, according to AFP.
Three Palestinians were injured as the helicopters destroyed two houses from where military sources said Palestinians had opened fire on soldiers guarding Rachel's Tomb, a strongly fortified Jewish shrine on the northern edge of the West Bank city.
The bombardment followed what the Israeli army described as an attempt by armed Palestinians to storm the tomb, revered by Jews as the resting place of the biblical matriarch Rachel, said the agency.
"Soldiers guarding the tomb were confronted by an organized attack by dozens of armed Palestinians who came within a few dozen meters of our position," the army commander for the region, Lieutenant-Colonel Ino Kassem told military radio.
A gunbattle raged in the area between Israeli troops and armed Palestinians for some three hours, military sources said.
The site in Bethlehem and villages surrounding the town have often been the scene of violent confrontations since the eruption of the deadly tide of Israeli-Palestinian unrest that has claimed the lives of some 300 people in over nine weeks.
"The Israeli army considers with utmost gravity this attack against a holy site which follows the destruction of Joseph's Tomb in Nablus," army spokesman Yarden Vatikay told AFP.
He was referring to the ransacking of another Jewish shrine in the northern West Bank by Palestinians in early October, following an army withdrawal from the site which was a frequent flashpoint for clashes during the early days of the Intifada or Palestinian uprising.
Earlier, thirty Palestinians were injured, including five severely, and two others "very seriously" late Sunday in clashes with the Israeli army and Jewish settlers in the Houssan village near Bethlehem in the southern West Bank, according to eyewitnesses.
They said that Jewish settlers from the Etar Eileit settlement, supported by the Israeli soldiers, attacked the village from the western side during the sunset breakfast, and opened fire at people in their houses and at worshippers who were leaving the mosque after prayers.
The village's entrances were blocked by the attackers to prevent Palestinians from the neighboring villages to come to help. And ambulances were barred from entering the village to take the injured.
The witnesses added that doctors and medical staff from the neighboring towns and villages infiltrated into the town through mountains and evacuated the wounded to the Yamama Hospital in Beit Jala, while the two critical cases were rushed to the Makassed Hospital in Jerusalem.
Clashes erupted between the villagers and the invadors for about 2.5 hours, and extended to the nearby Khader village, according to the sources, who added that the power generators in both villages were damaged.
Meanwhile, a gunbattle was underway in Beit Jala between armed Palestinians and the Israeli forces who bombarded the Orthodox Club suburb of the town with tank shells and heavy machine guns.
14 Palestinians were injured in clashes with the Israeli troops in different areas in the West bank and Gaza, while a large rally was staged in Beit Shaour in which Islamic and Christian leaders took part "to condemn the Israeli aggression."
Meanwhile, in an unprecedented move, foreign women residing in Bethlehem marched with their children to the offices of the Red Cross in the town, where they handed the officials a letter addressed to UN chief, Kofi Annan, calling on him to work for the full implementation of the UN resolutions related to the Palestinian issues.
The women, most of them are married to Palestinians, condemned the Israeli practices against the Palestinians and the closure of the territories "which leads to devastating results on the economic life of the Palestinians."
In the letter, the protestors said that they are worried from "Israeli policies of demolishing houses and bulldozing farmlands and orchards." They also denounced "the way Israel deals with the foreign press," describing it as inhumane and against human rights.
The women, who moved then to the Church of Nativity, stressed their rights of living in peace in the Holy Land.
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