JERUSALEM -- Israeli tanks entered the West Bank city of Ramallah last night, setting up another showdown with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat hours after the second suicide bomber in two days blew himself up in Jerusalem, killing seven Israelis.
Witnesses said Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers entered Ramallah from two directions and headed toward the center of town, where Arafat has his headquarters.
In the Gaza Strip, Israeli helicopters hovered over two refugee camps last night and fired several missiles, hitting a steel factory to the south and offices of suspected militants near Gaza City in the north.
Early today Israeli forces entered the West Bank towns of Bethlehem and Qalqiliya, and declared curfews, the military said in a statement.
Troops also moved into Beitunia, a suburb of Ramallah, and searched for suspects. Two Israeli soldiers were killed and three others were wounded in a shootout in Qalqiliya, the military said.
The latest suicide bombings have stalled a U.S. initiative to halt Middle East violence and likely will accelerate plans initiated early yesterday by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to seize Palestinian areas and hold them until the violence stops -- a significant shift in policy that could lead to a full-scale reoccupation of the West Bank.
Among the dead in yesterday's blast -- toward the end of evening rush hour at the French Hill junction, north of downtown Jerusalem -- were a 6-year-old girl and an 18-month-old baby. The busy crossroads, a frequent target, is typically packed with people waiting for buses or driving to and from work.
Yesterday's attack came as Jerusalem residents were still burying the dead from Tuesday morning's bus bombing, which killed 19 Israelis and the Palestinian bomber.
"This war continued yesterday, continues today and will continue tomorrow," Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert told reporters at the scene of yesterday's bombing, while calling for "an ongoing military operation so there won't be anything left that can threaten us with terror."
Israeli police said the bomber got out of a car near a hitchhiking post and walked to the bus stop, which is protected against car bombs by a line of steel posts. As two police officers approached, the man ran away and triggered the bomb as an officer tried to tackle him. The officer was critically wounded.
The blast blew out the back and sides of a bus shelter, leaving only a concrete bench and roof. Debris was scattered over a wide area, and a wall in back of the bus stand was charred black.
One body lay on the sidewalk; several people died shortly after arriving at hospitals. The body of an infant remained in an overturned carriage, and rescue workers covered it with a black tarpaulin.
The Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed wing of Arafat's Fatah faction, claimed responsibility for the explosion.
The French Hill neighborhood has been attacked so often that police armed with assault rifles are permanently stationed there. The junction, on the main road to Ramallah, attracts a large number of Israeli soldiers waiting for buses and is near several Palestinian villages.
Yesterday's attack was the 71st suicide bombing in Israel since the start of the uprising in late September 2000. The Palestinian campaign, which has seen one bombing every 8.5 days, has left 248 Israelis dead and more than 3,000 injured.
The latest attack came as a U.S. peace initiative was gathering speed, and demonstrates how militant groups can steer the Middle East agenda by using violence to thwart negotiations that they oppose.
Within an hour of the attack last night, Bush postponed his speech on the peace initiative indefinitely. Now, even a trip by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has been delayed.
"It's hard to get people to focus on peace today when there's still suffering from the consequences of terrorism as we speak," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. "The president wants to give a speech at a time when it will have the maximum impact to bring the maximum prospects for peace to the region."
U.S. officials did not criticize Israel for again taking over West Bank land, though they said they hope that the occupation is not permanent.
Bush is expected to propose that a Palestinian state be created before borders are agreed upon between Israel and the Palestinians. But administration officials said yesterday that Bush won't be prepared to recognize such a state until the Palestinians undergo sweeping reforms to make their government democratic, to end corruption and build a security service capable of cracking down on suicide bombers.
Such reforms cannot be accomplished before the end of this year, officials said.