Tanks on the move but Israel remains defiant

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The Independent Online

Israel had no sooner withdrawn its tanks from one West Bank town yesterday, than it was seen beefing up its presence in another.

Israel had no sooner withdrawn its tanks from one West Bank town yesterday, than it was seen beefing up its presence in another.

Just hours after the army had withdrawn from Qalqilya, parts of which were seized last month in the largest post-Oslo military invasion of Palestinian-run areas, there were reports that it was dispatching more tanks into nearby Tulkarm.

There was also brief raid into Palestinian-run Rafah in southern Gaza Strip, where tanks knocked down several houses before withdrawing.

Israel has now withdrawn from three of the six Palestinian-ruled areas it seized in and around West Bank towns after the assassination on 17 October of Rechavam Zeevi, its ultra-nationalist Tourism Minister. But, nearly three weeks on, it has yet to end the operation, despite international protests.

The operation – mounted under the banner of an anti-terrorist drive – attracted international criticism, including censure from the United States, which has maintained its generally sympathetic line on Israel, despite tensions over several issues. The US ambassador to Israel, Dan Kurtzer, said: "It's been our view that the right of self-defence, which no one challenges, should not be exercised with incursions into Area A [those parts of the West Bank and Gaza which are supposed to be under full Palestinian rule]."

The withdrawal from Qalqilya began at midnight, and was completed despite a shooting attack on Sunday on a municipal bus in Jerusalem, which killed two Israeli teenagers. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack. A senior Islamic Jihad official called it a response to "the Israeli government's crimes and terrorism".

The Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, who has postponed a trip to the US to meet George Bush, says he has a plan for peace, although it appears to have little chance of winning over the Palestinians.

At a Likud faction meeting yesterday, Mr Sharon said Israel will keep control over the Jordan Valley in the West Bank with a 10-20km "security belt". He also said there was no plan to evacuate Jewish settlements illegally built in the occupied Gaza Strip – one of the measures that the international community regards as a prerequisite for a final peace deal.

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