Palestinian gunmen have often fired from Beit Jala at a nearby Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem. There were heavy exchanges of fire. Several hours after crossing the border into the town, the Israelis pulled out.
An Israeli official warned the incursion won't be the last.
"In principle, I have approved any entry into area A if that's necessary to guarantee our security," said Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer to reporters, in English.
Palestinian hospital sources identified the militiaman as Mohammad Obeiyat, 45, an activist in President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, and said among the 20 wounded was a five-year-old boy.
Witnesses said an Israeli tank had fired a shell at the house in Beit Jala from which Obeiyat was shooting, and the building collapsed on him. It took ambulances two hours to reach him because of the intensity of the fighting, they said.
"Fire was opened at us from three sources on ridges above us," Brigadier-General Benny Gantz, Israel's military commander in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, told reporters. "The force returned fire and moved to take over those areas."
Palestinian officials said the Israeli raid had been unprovoked. The area is located along a familiar firing line between Beit Jala and Gilo, a Jewish settlement which Israel regards as a neighborhood of Jerusalem.
Black smoke billowed over Beit Jala and several houses were destroyed. Witnesses said the Israelis had fired tank shells and missiles and also used heavy machineguns. Palestinians fired semi-automatic weapons and pistols.
Berger reports such incursions carry a price: They're unproven militarily, and diplomatically, they're sharply opposed by Israel's guardian ally, the United States.
It was the deepest drive into a Palestinian-ruled West Bank area since Israel handed over Beit Jala, a town of 15,000 south of Jerusalem, along with other parts of the West Bank under peace deals in December 1995.
"I am not one of those who is happy when we enter 'Area A'," Ben-Eliezer said. "But as you can see, we went in and we immediately went out."
In a further blow to U.S. and European Middle East peace moves, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon swiftly rejected an international inquiry's recommendation for a freeze in Jewish settlement construction on occupied land.
The Palestinian Authority said it had accepted the findings of the U.S.-led fact-finding panel on the seven months of violence and said its recommendations would help end the conflict.
At least 405 Palestinians have been killed in the violence along with 13 Israeli Arabs and 76 other Israelis.
Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said that, despite some shortcomings, the report was a "genuine attmpt by the international community to help the parties move from occupation and conflict to negotiations and Palestinian statehood."
Israeli political sources said the U.S.-led inquiry, in a report given to the two sides on Friday, had recommended a halt to Israeli settlement building but did not suggest sending a peacekeeping force to the region as demanded by Palestinians.
The sources said the report had recommended the Israeli army use non-lethal weapons in confrontations with stone-throwers, advised it to pull back to positions held before the outbreak of fighting, and called on Palestinians to halt violence.
The sources said the report found Israel should have weighed the effect of a visit by Sharon later elected prime minister to a Jerusalem holy site. The violence, which coincided with a deadlock in peacemaking, erupted after the visit.
Sharon's aide, Cabinet Secretary Gideon Saar, told Army Radio the demand on settlements ran contrary to the committee's own recommendation that the sides adhere to signed agreements. Former U.S. senator George Mitchell heads the committee.
"In the agreements, it was never determined that there must be a complete freeze of the settlements," Saar said.
Israeli political sources confirmed a report on Sunday by the newspaper Ha'aretz that Sharon planned to submit to his cabinet next week a proposal to increase support for settlements by more than $350 million.
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