Eight dead in Israeli push on West Bank

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Israel had troops in nearly all the main towns of the West Bank last night after the widest incursion into Palestinian-controlled areas of the occupied terriroties since the start of the year-long conflict.

As Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, sharply intensified pressure on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, another eight Palestinians were killed and dozens were injured. The dead included a woman who, according to Palestinian officials, was hit by tank shell fragments in Beit Jala, next to Bethlehem, and a 15-year-old boy shot dead to the east of the town.

The raids, which were coupled with the arrest of at least a dozen Palestinian alleged militants, came as Israeli combat helicopters fired missiles into the heart of Bethlehem, ignoring appeals for calm led by the United States – which fears worsening anti-American sentiment in Muslim countries as the Afghanistan war goes on.

All but two towns in the West Bank – Jericho and Hebron – last night had troops within zones which had been handed over to the Palestinian Authority under the now-moribund Oslo agreements. The US said the raids "complicate the situation and should be halted".

The Israeli incursions – six in three days – were triggered by the assassination earlier this week of ultra-nationalist cabinet minister, Rechavam Zeevi, by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The PFLP said it was retaliating for the killing of its political leader, Abu Ali Mustafa, in August.

Israel is trying to pressure the Palestinian Authority to arrest and hand over PFLP officials, and generally crack down on Palestinian militant groups – a task which is seen as particularly difficult for Yasser Arafat as many of the militants now represent views held by the majority of the population of the West Bank and Gaza.

At about 3am local time yesterday, Israeli tanks entered the towns of Qalqilya and Tulkarem in the northern West Bank; snipers were posted on rooftops. The troops were met by Palestinian fire, and four Palestinians were killed in the fighting, doctors said.

In Qalqilya, Israeli soldiers took over the two-storey police headquarters, which Palestinian officers had left before the incursion, Palestinian security officials said. They reported that Israeli troops arrested five Hamas activists, including four brothers of a man who had carried out a suicide bombing in Israel in 1994. Two members of Force 17, a Palestinian security service, were also detained.

An Israeli government spokesman, Arnon Perlman, said troops sealed Tulkarem and Qalqilya because of warnings that militants from the two towns were preparing to launch suicide attacks in Israel.

Israeli officials would not say how long the troops will stay. "There is no ideological or strategic decision by the Israeli government to conquer these areas and stay there," cabinet minister Tsipi Livni told Israel radio. "Everything depends on... how the Palestinian Authority will react."

The raids on Beit Jala and Bethlehem were triggered by shooting on the Jewish settlement of Gilo, on Jerusalem's southern edge. On Friday, Palestinians fired three mortar shells at Gilo, damaging cars but causing no injuries. In Israel's view the attack on Gilo marks a return of the conflict to Jerusalem itself, the city it regards as its eternal capital.

Mr Sharon was due to visit Britain this week, where he would have heard a plea from Tony Blair to re-engage in the peace process, but the trip, though still officially due to take place in the next few weeks, has been put on the back burner. In the meantime Mr Sharon is steadily strengthening his grip in another area: Jerusalem. He was quick to exploit the power vacuum which resulted from the death in May of Faisal Husseini, the influential – and internationally well-connected – leader of Jerusalem's 220,000 Palestinians who died after a heart attack in Kuwait.

A handful of Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem – the Arab half of the city occupied by Israel and later illegally annexed – have been closed down. Unfriendly Israeli police officers and 10ft high concrete blocks now stand guard outside Orient House, Faisal Husseini's former headquarters in Jeru-salem, which in August was seized by Israel authorities after a suicide bombing against Israel.

Some roads linking east Jerusalem with a number of adjoining Arab neighbourhoods on the West Bank have been sealed off with rubble barricades and trenches. Israel's respected Ha'aretz newspaper reported last month that the Israeli armed forces are considering reconstituting a Jerusalem brigade, in which border troops – currently under the command of the police – would be transferred to military control.

After this week's assassination of Mr Zeevi, Palestinian officials in Abu Dis – part of Jerusalem's sprawl but outside the Israeli-defined municipal boundaries – were woken in the night to find Israeli helicopters hovering over their homes, beaming searchlights upon them.

Ziyad Abu Zayad, Yasser Arafat's Minister of Jerusalem Affairs, was recently expelled from the city for not having a permit. Last month, Jerusalem police detained the mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Ikrema Sabri – a senior appointee of the Palestinian Authority – for travelling to a conference also attended by the leader of Lebanon's Hizbollah.

"Mr Sharon is using whatever excuse he can find to tighten his control over Jerusalem," said Dr Ghassan Khatib, a leading Palestinian political analyst. "And there is one common denominator – to undo whatever was done during the Oslo process."

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