Six major West Bank towns in Israeli hands

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The Independent Online

Even as George Bush called on Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian cities in the West Bank and withdraw, the Israeli army pushed deeper into Palestinian territory yesterday and fighting raged across the West Bank. Israel completed its occupation of the largest city in the West Bank, Nablus, and tanks entered Hebron.

With the fall of Nablus, six big West Bank towns are now in Israeli hands. If Hebron is invaded, that would leave Jericho as the last town in the West Bank under Palestinian control.

Palestinian gunmen were fighting the Israelis street by street as they advanced. There were reports of gun battles as Palestinian fighters fled from Nablus into an old area of the city where the streets are too narrow for tanks, and barricaded themselves in four refugee camps near by.

A 53-year-old woman was killed in the initial Israeli thrust into Nablus, a city of 180,000 people, Palestinian hospital officials said. At least seven people were wounded in the city, including a 19-year-old man, Ahmed Tarzai, who was hit by a bullet in the head and was "clinically dead".

Israeli tanks were reported to have reached the Palestinian Authority's offices in the city and troops were fighting their way towards the Casbah district, where armed Palestinian had set up makeshift barricades. One Palestinian man was killed by Israeli fire as he opened the window of his apartment.

Some of the worst fighting was in a refugee camp in the city of Jenin, which Israeli forces occupied yesterday. Several recent suicide bombers have come from the camp, and Israeli soldiers were searching it house by house. Troops called in helicopters to attack specific houses, while tanks fired into the camp.

At a nearby army command centre, officers had an aerial photo of the camp pinned on the inside of a canvas tent. By morning, about a third of the dwellings had been marked as having been searched or taken over by troops.

Brigadier General Eyal Shlein, the commander of the operation, said he would consider the raid a success when gunmen had been killed or taken captive. "When I get to every single spot in the refugee camp ... and we've killed a few, that's how I will know [it was a success]," he said. "We are not leaving any escape routes."

Palestinian gunmen inside the camp claimed they were making a last stand there. They told reporters by telephone that they were saving up their ammunition for sniper fire. At least three Palestinian gunmen had been killed inside the camp, they said.

Jamal Howeel, of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade militia, said soldiers had taken over two buildings on the camp's western edge, and militants had surrounded the structures and exchanged fire with the troops and helicopters.

So far, more than 1,000 Palestinian men between 15 and 40 have been taken prisoner by advancing Israeli forces. Their families said they could not find out where the men had been taken.

The stand-off at the Church of the Nativity, said to be the site of the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in Bethlehem continued despite claims from priests and Palestinian gunmen inside that Israeli troops had blown off a door at the back of the church.

At least five Palestinians, including three gunmen, were believed to have been killed in fighting in Bethlehem. Another was a church caretaker shot dead as he tried to walk to the Church of the Nativity.

The dangerous potential widening of the conflict continued yesterday at the point where Israel, Syria and Lebanon meet, with a second day of exchanges of artillery and mortar fire between Hizbollah guerrillas and Israeli forces.

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