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Hundreds held in crackdown on Palestinian students

Jerusalem - Israeli forces yesterday arrested 200 students at Bir Zeit university, 10 per cent of the student body of the most prestigious Palestinian educational institution in the occupied territories, writes Patrick Cockburn.

The arrests started at 4am yesterday when large contingents of Israeli security forces moved into the hill-top town of Bir Zeit, north of Jerusalem, and two nearby villages. Loudspeakers announced that the town was under curfew as teams of soldiers entered student houses and apartment buildings. Students and others detained were held in a playing field in the nearby village of Jifna.

Israeli radio said that 370 Palestinians had been detained. The army said that the aim was to arrest suspected guerrillas, confiscate weapons and "round up and return home Palestinians who were staying in these areas illegally". This refers to students from Gaza attending Bir Zeit, though the university says only half the students detained come from there.

The mass round-up will further alienate Palestinians on the West Bank who feel that the limited gains they made through the Oslo accords are being steadily eroded. In addition to the clamp-down by Israel, the Palestinian Authority has arrested at least 700 suspected members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad according to Amnesty International.

In the wake of the four suicide bombings which killed 62 people in Israel, Israeli security forces have moved back into the 465 villages from which they had largely departed.

The blowing up of the houses of the families of those alleged to be involved in suicide bombing and other high profile gestures appear to be aimed at impressing the Israeli electorate with the government's tough stance on security in the lead up to the election on 29 May.