Defiant Israel snubs Bush peace plan

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The Independent Online

Israel defied President George Bush yesterday in the most bloody and belligerent fashion, continuing its week-long military assault, assassinating two prominent Palestinian militants and sending its tanks roaring into another West Bank town.

A day after Mr Bush called on Israel immediately to halt its incursions into Palestinian territories, at least 20 Palestinians were killed ­ one a 14-year-old girl ­ as helicopter gunships launched missiles at gunmen in the city of Nablus and troops entered the town of Tubas. Israeli soldiers also retrieved the bodies of five men in Bethlehem, apparently killed by fellow Palestinians as suspected informers.

Meanwhile, Tony Blair was in talks last night with Mr Bush at his Texas ranch, discussing hopes for a possible ceasefire. The crisis will top the agenda for a further full day of talks today.

Mr Blair said before the meeting: "We will be looking at ideas that could lead to a ceasefire, which is an essential precondition before getting back to the political dialogue.

"We don't have the luxury of giving up, we have to press on and do what we can for the sake of the people, their security and the security of the region."

But Israel's military assault continued unabated as polls in the country showed a rise in support for the tactics being employed by the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon.

Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, is to leave for the Middle East tomorrow, his department said yesterday, in an announcement designed to end criticism that his delayed departure had allowed Israel another week to continue its assault on the West Bank. The man who General Powell will, in effect, replace ­ the US special envoy Anthony Zinni ­ met Yasser Arafat yesterday in the Palestinian leader's headquarters in Ramallah.

General Zinni was allowed through the cordon of Israeli tanks and soldiers that surround the compound, the first foreign official to be given access to Mr Arafat in eight days.

Israel did not want journalists to witness the meeting. Soldiers threw stun grenades at a convoy of reporters who were trying to reach the building and trained the barrels of their tanks at their vehicles.

Inside, it appears the Palestinian leader seized on what he could in President Bush's speech. A senior aide, Nabil Abu Rdainah, said: "The meeting looked into President Bush's speech, the need to halt Israeli military incursions into Palestinian areas, an immediate end to settlement and siege and the unconditional implementation of the Tenet and Mitchell reports."

As the two talked, Israel pushed home its military advantage, sending its tanks into Tubas, home to 20,000 Palestinians, and fighting battles with Palestinian gunmen in Nablus and Jenin. A stand-off continued at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where about 200 Palestinian fighters have sought sanctuary.

In a striking example of Israel's intention to take on those Palestinians it equates with the terrorists who now shape Mr Bush's every policy, its soldiers killed two leading militants, including the alleged mastermind of the Passover suicide bombing in Netanya that killed 26 people and triggered Israel's offensive. They were identified as Qeis Odwan, head of the military wing of the Islamic group Hamas, in the northern West Bank, and Nasser Awais, leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade militia in the same region.

Thousands of Palestinians took to the streets across the Gaza Strip in a "day of anger" against the Israeli military offensive and the muted response from the Arab world. Up to 25,000 supporters of Hamas rallied in the Jebaliya refugee camp. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the group's founder, said Hamas would not stop its attacks on Israelis.

Elsewhere, the Palestinian Information Minister, Yasser Abed Rabbo, said Israeli troops had forced their way into his home on the pretext of conducting a search.