Israeli tanks seize control of Ramallah

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The Israel army has occupied most of the West Bank city of Ramallah. The military offensive against Palestinians is now the largest since the 1982 Lebanon invasion and at least 28 have died in the past 24 hours.

An estimated 100 Israeli tanks were thought to have occupied Ramallah and the adjacent Amari refugee camp and a quarter of a million Palestinians are effectively under curfew. Most of Israel's combat soldiers are now deployed in the Palestinian territories, security sources said.

Several tanks were deployed outside the Ramallah headquarters of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The takeover came only a day after the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced that Arafat, who had been confined to Ramallah for the past three months, was free to move in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel's deputy defence minister, Dalia Rabi-Pelossof, said she expected the operation to stop by the time US envoy Anthony Zinni arrives in the region on Thursday.

The Jebaliya refugee camp – the largest and most crowded with 100,000 residents – came under heavy Israeli fire from tanks and helicopter gunships during a three-hour incursion.

Hundreds of Palestinian gunmen exchanged fire with Israeli forces, and at least 18 Palestinians were killed and 75 wounded by Israeli fire, doctors said. Many civilians, some in their pajamas, fled the fighting, moving toward nearby Gaza City on foot and in donkey carts. "They are killing us," said Laila Ayoub, 38, carrying a baby girl in her arms. "They used helicopters to fire on us while we were leaving."

In an angry response, a senior Arafat adviser, Ahmed Abdel Rahman, said today that "talking peace with the Israelis was a historic mistake." Abdel Rahman said he was confined to his home because of heavy Israeli tank fire.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who has maintained contacts with Arafat and other senior Palestinian officials despite the fighting, criticized the military strikes, saying that "we have to be careful not to humiliate (people), not to treat human beings with contempt," Peres said. "I don't know if Israel has humiliated Arafat. I do know that Arafat feels humiliated."

Several hours after taking up positions in Ramallah, Israeli troops announced over loudspeakers that boys and men between the ages of 16 and 40 must come out of their homes and surrender to Israeli forces. Local TV stations urged the men not to comply.

Since the weekend, Israeli forces up rounded up nearly 2,000 Palestinians in similar arrests sweeps in three other West Bank locations, in hopes of tracking down suspected militants.

Asked whether Israel would keep up the offensive in Zinni's presence, Rabin-Pelossof, the deputy defence minister, said: "I assume that when Zinni is here, this will not be the way things are done."

Israel's offensive began last week, after a string of attacks by Palestinian militants on Israeli civilians. Since the beginning of March, 150 Palestinians and 52 Israelis have been killed, making it the bloodiest period since fighting began in September 2000.

Israeli military commentator Ron Ben-Ishai said the current offensive is the largest-scale Israeli military campaign since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a leader of the Islamic militant group Hamas, threatened more attacks. "We have no choice but to kill the occupier, to kill him everywhere, every village and every city. There's no other way to defend ourselves," he said.

As the fighting raged, two Israeli Cabinet ministers from the ultra-nationalist National Union party submitted their resignation, saying they felt Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's actions against the Palestinian Authority were not tough enough. Sharon retains his parliamentary majority despite the protest.

* Shots were fired today at an Israeli bus carrying civilians about a mile from the Israeli-Lebanese border. The army said the bus was hit by gunfire and grenades and that at least three people were wounded. The attack took place near the small Israeli town of Shlomi.