Israeli forces seize Hebron, kill at least 8

Arafat, though free to go, remains in Ramallah, surrounded by tanks

U.S. monitors to arrive today


HEBRON, West Bank - Israeli tanks and soldiers seized control of Hebron, the West Bank's largest city, yesterday and killed at least eight Palestinians, hours after agreeing to an American proposal to end a four-month siege against Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The incursion into Hebron, which had been previously spared from the large-scale Israeli offensive that began March 29, was initiated little more than 36 hours after Palestinian gunmen killed four Israelis in the nearby settlement of Adora.

Yesterday, Arafat remained sequestered at his headquarters in Ramallah, surrounded by Israeli tanks, even as American and Israeli officials said he was now free to move about.

"Today, Arafat can go where he chooses," said the Israeli defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher said Arafat was "free to go when and wherever he wants to go."

Palestinian officials said it was still not safe for Arafat to leave, but that talks were continuing on an American proposal to lift the siege by having British and American monitors supervise the imprisonment of six Palestinians wanted by Israel who have taken refuge in Arafat's compound.

A Palestinian official described the talks as "positive," and said they would resume today.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer described the proposed American monitors as "security officials," but "not military, not troops." He said the prisoners would be held in Palestinian jails, but British and American officials would monitor their imprisonment.

He declined to say whether the monitors would be American intelligence officials.

"These are not pin-striped diplomats," he said. "These are security officials."

Diplomats in Israel said they expect the monitors to use a combination of electronic surveillance and physical presence in Jericho, where the prisoners were expected to be jailed.

If a final plan is accepted by all sides, the siege at Arafat's compound, which began in December and intensified with the recent Israeli offensive, would end tomorrow at the earliest.

Israeli officials said last night that their forces would withdraw from Arafat's compound only after British and American observers arrive to monitor the imprisonment of the six wanted men. But U.S. observers are not expected to arrive until late today.

"It has to be American and British monitors," a senior Israeli official said. "These things have to be followed to the letter."

In Washington, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said he expects the other lingering standoff between Israel and the Palestinians, at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, to "be resolved in the near future."

The standoffs, as well as the new violence, continued to complicate an American effort to secure some kind of truce after 18 months of violence that has left more than 2,000 people dead.

The Israeli incursion yesterday was carried out by squads of Israeli special forces supported by Cobra attack helicopters. The eight Palestinians killed appeared to have been the targets of a helicopter missile attack on one house in southern Hebron.

Israeli officials said at least two of the dead were suspected terrorists, and that Israeli forces also arrested a leader of the militant group Hamas. But Palestinians complained that after the first missile strike, a second missile attack killed two men who rushed to the house to help the injured and seriously wounded a doctor.

Ben-Eliezer said that 17 suspected terrorists were arrested in the operation, and that a car bomb, two suitcases of explosives and other weapons were found.

As in the past, the Bush administration sent mixed signals about the Israeli operation. Boucher, at the State Department, said that Israel should "finish its withdrawal" from reoccupied Palestinian areas and "refrain from further incursions." But at the White House, Fleischer said the United States understood the Israeli response.

Palestinian officials issued a statement last night condemning the Hebron incursion.

Israeli officials said the incursion was a necessary response to an attack Saturday morning, when Palestinian gunmen dressed as soldiers sneaked into an Israeli settlement near Hebron and killed four settlers, including a 5-year-old girl shot in the head as she lay in her bed.

"Whenever there will be a terrorist attack that makes it a necessity, we will respond," a senior Israeli official said last night.

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