Israeli troops raid West Bank city

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The Independent Online

Israeli soldiers sealed off Nablus on yesterday, placed much of the city under curfew and conducted house-to-house searches for Palestinian militants in the largest military operation in the West Bank in months.

Israeli officials said the widescale raid was crucial to stopping future militant attacks against Israel, but Palestinian officials said the offensive threatened nascent efforts to restart peace negotiations.

The raid began before 3am yesterday morning, when about 80 jeeps, armored vehicles and bulldozers poured into Nablus, witnesses said. Soldiers closed the main entrance to the city, known as a hotbed of militant activity, and the bulldozers erected huge piles of rubble to block off key roads, witnesses said.

The operation was focused on Nablus' Old City, or casbah, a densely populated area of narrow alleyways, apartment buildings and markets. About 50,000 people were placed under curfew, residents said.

The military took over local television and radio stations, broadcasting orders to people to remain indoors and warning that the clampdown would remain in effect for several days, residents said. The army said the road closures and curfew were necessary to avoid civilian casualties.

Soldiers moved from door to door, entering homes in search of suspects.

At one point, a small group of nervous soldiers forced a Palestinian youth to lead them into a home. The soldiers then took him, along with several young Palestinian men, into a military vehicle.

Israel's Supreme Court in 2005 banned the practice of using Palestinian civilians as "human shields" to search homes for explosives or militants ahead of soldiers. The army had no immediate comment on Sunday's incident, which was filmed by AP Television News.

Sporadic clashes were reported as soldiers were pelted with stones and cement blocks, and exchanged fire with Palestinian gunmen, the army said.

The army responded with rubber bullets and stun grenades, witnesses said. In one incident, soldiers entered a cemetery to search for Palestinians who had pelted their vehicle with stones.

The army said two soldiers were lightly wounded by a Palestinian bomb; Palestinian medical officials said four Palestinians were wounded by rubber bullets.

The raid came a day after Israeli troops discovered an explosives laboratory in the city, the West Bank's commercial center, and Maj. Avital Leibovich, an army spokeswoman, said the soldiers had uncovered another explosive lab and small caches of weapons on Sunday.

Area commander Brig. Gen. Yair Golan said the military entered Nablus because of increased militant activity there. He said most of the intercepted bombers and explosives came from the city. "We entered the city to lower the threat level to Israel and hit terror infrastructure," he said in a telephone interview.

Palestinian officials said the raid threatened new peace efforts.

Abbas met last week with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Jerusalem. Though little progress was made at the meeting, participants said they discussed the possibility of extending a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip to the West Bank.

"We condemn this military incursion," said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian lawmaker. "This will undermine the efforts that are being made to sustain the cease-fire with Israel."

The raid came at a sensitive time for the moderate Abbas, who is trying to cobble together a unity government with the radical Hamas group.

Hamas and Abbas' Fatah party reached a power-sharing deal earlier this month in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Abbas said the deal forced the radical group to moderate its violently anti-Israel ideology and should pave the way for ending crushing international sanctions imposed on the current Hamas-led government.

Israel and Western donor nations have warned that they will not lift the sanctions if the new government does not agree to renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist.

Ghazi Hamad, spokesman for the Hamas-led government, said the Nablus raid was part of an Israeli effort to destroy the unity deal.

The sanctions have inflicted great hardship, and Palestinian officials said Sunday that their economy contracted 21 percent in the fourth quarter because of the boycott.

Also Sunday, a smugglers' tunnel under the Gaza-Egypt border collapsed, injuring three people. Security officials said it belonged to a clan known for drugs and weapons dealing. Israel says the Palestinians have smuggled in a steady stream of weapons from Egypt since Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005.