NABLUS, West Bank -- Israel on Saturday pulled its soldiers out of Joseph's Tomb, a tiny enclave that had come under steady fire from Palestinian gunmen for the past week. Within hours, Palestinian civilians -- some armed -- stormed the site, setting fires and trashing Hebrew texts and equipment left behind by the army.
In a sign that the violence was spreading, Israeli troops opened fire on hundreds of rock-throwing Lebanese protesters at the Israel-Lebanon border, killing one demonstrator and wounding 14, Lebanese officials said.
Soon after, Lebanese guerrillas fired rockets on Israeli positions at another part of the border. Lebanese security officials said three Israeli soldiers had been captured. The Israeli army had no immediate comment.
It was the bloodiest confrontation along the border since Israel ended its 18-year occupation of south Lebanon in May.
The pre-dawn evacuation of the tomb enclave in Nablus, ordered by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, was the first time Israel relinquished territory as a direct result of Palestinian violence. One Israeli soldier was shot and wounded during the evacuation.
"We consider this a big victory," said Ali Farraj, a local Palestinian leader. "It cost us a lot of blood, and we feel proud of this victory." Six Palestinians and an Israeli border policeman have been killed in a week of daily gunbattles at the site.
A top Barak adviser said that Joseph's Tomb was simply not worth holding any longer, and had become a liability.
"The question is, what interest did we ever have there," said Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh. "There was never a political or military or settlement justification to stay in Joseph's Tomb. Over the years, the army has protected a small, marginal group that wanted to use this site as a foothold for settlement in Nablus, that is the honest truth."
Still, Barak government ministers were clearly furious with Arafat for failing to protect the site.
An Israeli border policeman bled to death inside the compound last weekend, after Palestinian gunmen barred Israeli medics from reaching the compound for several hours.
Violence across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, sparked by a visit by hard-line opposition leader Ariel Sharon to a Jerusalem shrine holy to Muslims and Jews, has so far claimed 80 lives, most Palestinian. Two Palestinians died early Saturday of injuries sustained in clashes with Israeli soldiers on Friday.
In announcing the tomb evacuation, the army said Palestinian authorities promised to protect the site, which is also home to a Jewish seminary where about 30 students studied during the day. The students have been barred from the site since gun battles began last weekend.
In the tomb area, Palestinian leaders issued calls over megaphones Saturday, urging the civilians to leave. They went unheeded.
Giggling children emerged from the site wearing hats and flak jackets that had been left behind. One group set fire to one of the shacks in the compound and in the domed tomb. Palestinian firefighters doused the flames. Palestinian teen-agers climbed atop the tomb and hit it with hammers.
Others ripped apart Hebrew texts. It was unclear if the books were holy writings, but the army acknowledged that the troops had left some sacred Hebrew texts behind.
Some Jews believe the site is the tomb of the biblical patriarch, although most archaeologists ridicule that claim. Some Israelis have denounced Joseph's Tomb as a superfluous provocation.
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