Ten Palestinians, including an 11-year-old girl, were killed by Israeli forces as a day of violence erupted on the West Bank and the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suggested Israel would not be following the US-backed "road-map" peace plan.
Fighting began in Nablus before dawn when troops from an elite commando unit surrounded a building holding suspected militants in the Old City. Five fighters from the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and another group were killed. A Palestinian girl was shot by troops after the fighting, witnesses said.
Israeli forces later raided Jenin, where they killed at least four al-Aqsa men in a café. The dead included the commander of the wanted men, Fadi Zacharna. Three others were captured. An injured man was taken to an Israeli hospital for treatment.
Meanwhile, in an interview with the Yediot Ahronot daily, Mr Sharon appeared to put the nail in the coffin of the US- sponsored peace plan. Asked for his long-term vision for the region, the prime minister said that as long as there was no significant shift in the Palestinian leadership and policy, "Israel will continue its war on terrorism, and will stay in the territories that will remain after the implementation of disengagement."
Sharon put clear blue water between his disengagement plan and the road-map lauded by US President George Bush. He criticised an opposition plan to continue dismantling certain settlements and added: "Today, we are also not following the road-map. I am not ready for this ... The disengagement plan relieves Israel of pressures to adopt one plan or another that would be dangerous for it," Mr Sharon said in his interview.
However, Mr Sharon's spokesman, Ra'anan Gissin, later told The Independent that Mr Sharon had not repudiated the road-map, drafted by the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.
Yet, Sa'eb Erakat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, said that the Sharon interview confirmed Palestinian fears that the disengagement was a ploy to cement Israel's control over large areas of the West Bank. "Sharon's intention," he argued, "is to destroy the road- map and to dictate his long-term interim solution of Gaza as a prison and 40 per cent of the West Bank within a wall. This will not fly."
Mr Gissin retorted that Mr Sharon could not implement the road-map on his own. "Right now, there is no road-map because there is no Palestinian partner," he insisted. "Since a vacuum would have been dangerous, there was a need for another initiative that will park us in a position where we'll be able - if and when there is a partner that is ready to fight terror, institute reforms and change the leadership - to return to the road-map. If we do return, the road-map will be the only plan that is accepted by us."
Elsewhere in the interview, Mr Sharon reiterated his threat to expel, if not kill, Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian President. Israel, he recalled, had acted against the Hamas leaders, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi, who were assassinated in Gaza earlier this year.
"We acted when it was possible to do so," the Prime Minister said, "at a time when it was convenient for us. The same principle is also valid for Arafat. Arafat will be expelled. We will treat him the way we treated other murderers. I see no difference between him and Ahmed Yassin. They are both murderers of Jews."