Israeli tanks enter Palestinian city

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The Independent Online

In a four–hour incursion into the Palestinian city of Jenin in the West Bank, Israeli tanks opened fire early Tuesday and leveled the main police station.

It was the first major Israeli military raid into Palestinian territory in the West Bank. The army said it was in response to continued Palestinian attacks against Israelis.

In recent months Israeli tanks have repeatedly entered Palestinian areas in the Gaza Strip but have not launched major raids in the West Bank.

The latest raid came only a day after Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said he hoped to resume contact with senior Israeli officials to try and negotiate a truce.

Palestinians appealed to the U.N. Security Council for protection, a Palestinian negotiator said.

About 10 tanks rumbled into the city from an Israeli base just outside of Jenin. They stopped in front of several key Palestinian buildings on or near the main square of the city, said Haider Irshad, the vice governor of Jenin.

The tanks concentrated their fire on the police headquarters, about 200 meters (yards) from the square, and bulldozers were also called in to help with the destruction of the building, Irshad said.

Tanks moved in front of the governor's office and general headquarters for the security services, but did not open fire, he said.

Palestinian gunmen fired at the Israeli tanks, witnesses said. Israeli troops did not leave their tanks during the operation, and no Israeli ground troops were seen in the city, Irshad said.

Israeli helicopters flew above the city during the operation, but did not appear to fire, witnesses added.

There was no immediate word on casualties.

In a statement, the Israeli military said its forces entered Jenin and destroyed the Palestinian police headquarters because of a "string of terror attacks, including the (suicide bombing) in Kiryat Motzkin, which was directed by the terror organizations in Jenin." The statement charged that Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority is not taking steps to stop the attacks.

A suicide bomber blew up a restaurant in Kiryat Motzkin, near the port of Haifa, on Sunday, killing himself and injuring about 20 Israelis.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat denounced the Israeli incursion. "This is part of (Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon's campaign to undermine the peace process and undermine the Palestinian Authority," he told The Associated Press.

Erekat said the Palestinian representative is in touch with the president of the Security Council, appealing for international forces to protect the Palestinians, "because this is the only way out."

Israeli forces have briefly entered Palestinian–controlled territory on multiple occasions during the more than 10 months of Mideast fighting.

In most cases, it involved forays into relatively open areas in the Gaza Strip. Tuesday's incursion was the first time the Israeli forces entered a built–up area in a Palestinian–controlled city.

Israeli political and military figures have said that several recent Palestinian suicide bombers were sent from Jenin to carry out attacks inside Israel.

Meanwhile, Palestinians on Monday observed a general strike and demonstrators scuffled with Israeli police at Orient House, the unofficial Palestinian political headquarters in east Jerusalem that Israel seized last week.

The United States has criticized the Israeli takeover of Orient House as a "political escalation." Arab nations have expressed fury with the move.

Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war along with the West Bank, Gaza Strip and other territories. Israel annexed east Jerusalem days after the war, unlike the other areas. Though the annexation has not been recognized by any other country, Israel insists that the whole city is its capital.

The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of a state they hope to create.

"Jerusalem is ours," shouted about 2,000 Palestinians marching in the West Bank city of Nablus. About 3,000 Palestinians demonstrated in Gaza City, burning a coffin labeled "Sharon," a reference to Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Sharon, meanwhile, permitted Peres to resume contacts with senior Palestinian officials, despite two suicide bombings by Islamic militants over four days.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Peres denied media reports that Sharon had told him not to speak to Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat himself.

"I have the right to meet every person I think I have to, including Chairman Arafat," Peres said.

Also Monday, Israeli police shot and killed Khalil Nazaanah, a Palestinian from the West Bank village of Kufr Akab, suspected of killing an Israeli teen–ager last month.

Police said that Nazaanah was wounded during a chase and died later in the hospital.

He was suspected of killing 18–year–old Yuri Gushtzin, whose body was found with stabbing and gunshot wounds near the West Bank city of Ramallah on July 24.