Israelis hunt bomb labs house to house in Nablus

2 buildings demolished

little resistance offered to overwhelming force


NABLUS, West Bank - Penning the old city of Nablus with scores of tanks, bulldozers and armored vehicles, Israel sent soldiers house to house yesterday in pursuit of explosives laboratories and suspected extremists, acting against what it called a possible source of the bomb that killed seven people, including five Americans, at Hebrew University on Wednesday.

Elsewhere, Israel stepped up its punishment of the relatives of suicide attackers, destroying the homes of at least two families and preparing to banish the brothers of two assailants to the Gaza Strip.

Five Palestinians were killed in fighting yesterday, two of them in Nablus' casbah, the city's old quarter. But Israeli officials and Palestinian witnesses said there was little resistance here as the overwhelming force swept in before dawn.

Although the Israeli army took control of Nablus more than a month ago, as part of a West Bank offensive started after back-to-back suicide bombings in Jerusalem, the crackdown on the casbah was the first since April.

On that occasion, dozens of Palestinian gunmen died in a days-long battle as Israeli snipers fired into the twisting alleyways and soldiers bulldozed and fought their way through the market and into the densely populated, murky neighborhoods mined with homemade Palestinian bombs.

Yesterday, the army took at least 50 Palestinian men, handcuffed with plastic straps, to an empty store on the casbah's edge, forcing them to kneel or squat there. Eventually, the soldiers blindfolded the men and loaded them onto Israeli tourism buses to be taken for questioning.

The army said it had found two explosives laboratories stocked with acids and fertilizer for making bombs as well as ammunition and weapons, including one crude rocket. It said soldiers had blown up the apartment buildings containing the labs.

The speed with which weapons laboratories were reconstituted after the April invasion suggests the difficulty facing the army in sustaining what it regards as the benefits of these raids.

An Israeli army spokesman said it was possible that the bomb used in the attack on Hebrew University had originated in the casbah.

Israeli officials have begun describing Nablus, the Palestinian commercial center and home to about 180,000 people, in the terms they used to apply to Jenin, in the north. They labeled it the center of Palestinian militancy in the West Bank.

Palestinian residents of the casbah said Israeli forces had demolished several homes as well, an accusation the army denied.

Explosions were occasionally heard in Nablus yesterday as squads of soldiers in battle gear moved through the otherwise silent, empty streets.

The April raid had left part of the casbah in ruins and many homes pocked by bullet holes, and it was difficult to tell yesterday how much new damage had been inflicted.

The bodies of two of the American victims of the Hebrew University bombing, Benjamin Blutstein, 25, and Janis Ruth Coulter, 36, were flown to the United States early yesterday. Dina Carter, 37, who had dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship, was buried yesterday in Jerusalem.

Hamas, the Islamist group, claimed responsibility for the bombing, saying it was retaliating for Israel's killing last week of one of its leaders. Fourteen other people, including nine children, died in that attack.

Two men identified as Palestinian gunmen were killed here before dawn, and at least five people were wounded.

Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, called for "quick international intervention from the United Nations" to cope with the action in Nablus. "If they are not able to send forces, then send observers," Arafat told reporters in Ramallah, where he is surrounded by Israeli forces.

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