Israel presses offensive in West Bank

Arab officials hold emergency conference to address growing crisis


NABLUS, West Bank - Ferocious fighting raged here and elsewhere on the West Bank yesterday as Israel pressed its wide offensive against Palestinian cities despite President Bush's call for a withdrawal.

Israeli officials were openly taking Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's schedule for his emergency Middle East trip as giving them a grace period of at least a week to finish what they began. He will arrive here at the end of this week.

"We are finishing the operation we started," said Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer.

But yesterday, Bush increased the pressure on Israel, calling on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw his forces "without delay."

Sharon made no direct comment, following his usual practice of not reacting in public to such speeches. But a senior official reiterated that the sweep through Palestinian cities "will continue until such a time as we are assured that terrorism is uprooted and the perpetrators are arrested."

Arab foreign ministers issued a rebuke to the Bush administration, saying the 22-nation Arab League stood behind the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, whose struggle against Israeli occupation is "legitimate national resistance."

The continuing battles came as Arab foreign ministers met in emergency session in Cairo, Egypt, to address the growing crisis, protests spread across the Arab world, and Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain met at the president's ranch in Texas to discuss the situation.

It was not clear whether Powell would meet with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader. Asked yesterday whether the meeting would take place, Anthony C. Zinni, the American envoy who is trying to broker a cease-fire, said, "I don't know yet."

In Nablus, two American-made Apache helicopter gunships circled overhead in the afternoon, pouring rockets and gunfire at the casbah, or old city, a closed, twisting stone labyrinth that has become a redoubt for Palestinian fighters. At one point the helicopters unleashed a half-dozen rockets near or into the casbah.

The fighting here and in the nearby city of Jenin pitted Israeli tanks and armor against Palestinians hiding among buildings on city streets and in refugee camps. Palestinian fighters were handing out explosive suicide-bomber-type belts, and at times the fighters rushed in to try to blow up Israeli soldiers, said Jamal Abu Al-Haija, a Hamas leader in the Jenin refugee camp. Palestinian officials were warning last night of a "massacre" in Nablus.

Nablus and the refugee camps on its edges, Balata and Askar, have long been strongholds of Palestinian militancy. Balata, which Israeli forces were reportedly attacking late yesterday afternoon, is the birthplace of Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an offshoot of Arafat's mainstream Fatah movement, which has moved to the forefront of suicide bombers in recent weeks. Palestinians say they have rigged the narrow, twisting streets and tunnels of the casbah with bombs and booby traps.

At Balata, the Israeli army was calling through loudspeakers for residents to come out with their hands up and warning that otherwise their houses would be destroyed, an area resident said by telephone.

In Ramallah, hospital officials said that a 55-year-old baker was shot dead as he tried to reach his bakery to make bread in case the curfew was lifted.

On the tense northern border with Lebanon, Hezbollah guerrillas fired mortar rounds and rockets into Israel, which retaliated with artillery. Syrian troops in Lebanon have been redeploying to the north and east for the past two days, apparently to get away from any possible retaliation.

In Tel Aviv, about 10,000 Israelis rallied at the Defense Ministry against the military offensive in the West Bank, calling for a withdrawal from the area and a resumption of peace talks. Organized by a coalition of peace groups, the demonstration was the largest of its kind since the start of the current Palestinian uprising more than 18 months ago.

Speakers said the deepening Israeli military involvement in the West Bank and the hardship it was causing for Palestinians would only breed more violence against Israel. "They took our just war against terrorism and turned it into a war of occupation," said Yael Dayan, a lawmaker from the Labor Party. "This war of occupation is not our war."

Stickers distributed in the crowd said: "Get out of the territories. Stop the war."

In Nablus, the largest city in the West Bank, the Israelis have seized the high ground, taking over buildings, hanging camouflage netting over the windows and parking armored personnel carriers outside.

As in Ramallah and other cities the Israelis have stormed, the streets are empty, the stores shuttered, the people staying inside their homes.

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