Israel takes Arab city

Army's incursion in West Bank is its deepest since 1993

Arafat praises militants

3 Palestinians killed, 23 hurt in fighting in Tulkarm, Ramallah

January 22, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - With helicopters hovering overhead, Israeli soldiers marched into the Palestinian city of Tulkarm yesterday, placed residents under curfew and exchanged fire with militants.

Responding to attacks that have left 10 Israelis dead in a week, soldiers took over eight buildings, including a college, the mayor's house and the police station, in the sprawling West Bank city.

The Israeli army has reoccupied portions of several West Bank cities and villages over the past several months, but this was the first time since the Oslo peace accords gave Palestinians autonomy over part of the West Bank in 1993 that Israel has seized an entire municipality.

"We came to do what the Palestinian Authority hasn't," said Col. Yair Golan, whose troops conducted the 3 a.m. operation. He called the city of 10,000 a "launching pad" for terror attacks against Israel's citizens. At least 18 suspected Palestinian militants were detained.

Stepping up the pressure, Israel sent several tanks into a neighborhood in Nablus, the West Bank's largest city, early today, the Associated Press reported.

Three Palestinians were killed and 23 wounded in clashes in Tulkarm and the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Local leaders took to Tulkarm mosques and broadcast appeals for Palestinians to ignore the curfew, despite the army presence and a driving rainstorm. Many residents headed for the few bakeries that dared to open.

"It looks like the soldiers are here to stay," Hassan Khreisheh, a Palestinian Cabinet member, said in a telephone interview. Israeli troops have entered Tulkarm several times, he noted, but had never before ventured to its center. "The people have no other option but resistance."

Army officials said they would remain two or three days and then pull out after dismantling Palestinian militant groups. They said the terror cell responsible for last week's attack on a banquet hall in Hadera that killed six Israelis had entered Israel from Tulkarm.

"The city of Tulkarm is used as a focal point for dispatching terrorist attacks ... that cost the lives of many Israelis," an army statement said.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, confined by Israeli tanks to his compound in Ramallah, told a group of Palestinian intellectuals yesterday that he will fight for an independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital, even if it costs him his life.

"By God, I see it coming, martyred or alive," Arafat said. "May God give me the honor of martyrdom in my steadfastness for Jerusalem."

Though Palestinian officials said their cease-fire remains in place, Arafat praised militants who fought the Israeli incursion.

"Our people cannot stand with their eyes closed," he said.

As Arafat spoke, supporters continued to battle Israeli soldiers who have taken up positions within 100 yards of his walled presidential compound at the western edge of the city. A Palestinian police officer reportedly was killed in the clashes.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has vowed to keep Arafat under siege until he arrests the killers of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, who was assassinated Oct. 17. Arafat has been unable to leave his office for seven weeks.

The latest outbreak of violence follows three weeks of relative quiet. But a series of incidents, including the killings of four Israeli soldiers and Israel's seizure of a ship loaded with weapons apparently destined for the Palestinian Authority, have undermined attempts to restart negotiations for a formal cease-fire.

On Jan. 14, a popular Palestinian militant leader in Tulkarm, Raed Karmi, was killed by a bomb planted in a cemetery wall. Israelis have debated the wisdom of the apparent assassination, and Israeli officials have said that the killing has provoked a new round of violence.

"Every time there appears to be some sort of respite on the ground, something happens, whether by us or the other side," Deputy Defense Minister Dalia Rabin-Pelossof told Israeli radio yesterday. "Recently, in my opinion, we missed an opportunity to make a turning point."

Yossi Sarid, an Israeli parliament member and leader of the left-wing opposition Meretz Party, alleged yesterday that Israel's leaders had provoked Palestinian militants by killing Karmi.

"The government was frightened by the quiet, because it would push them back to the negotiation table," Sarid said. "And this government does not want to go back to negotiations."

Nearly every Palestinian militant group has issued a statement declaring that it no longer feels bound by Arafat's cease-fire orders and threatening to renew attacks, including suicide bombings.

"There are no borders in wartime; everything is open," said Hussein al-Sheik, a leader of Arafat's Fatah faction in Ramallah, whose militant wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization claimed responsibility for the Hadera shootings. "If anyone uses forces against us, we will use all our might against them, and they will pay the price."

Israel is on a high state of alert, with all police and army leaves canceled and every private business that attracts a public crowd ordered to post armed security guards at their entrances.

The simultaneous operations in Tulkarm and outside Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah evidently are designed both to dismantle terror groups and to isolate Arafat into irrelevance.

"He opens a window in Ramallah and sees the tanks and knows he's got nowhere to go," Sharon told his Cabinet this week.

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, has pleaded for the United States to send a mediator back to the region.

"If they don't send him back," Erekat said Sunday, "all we will do is add more Israeli and more Palestinian names to death lists."

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