Israel arrests militants in West Bank

Sunday, July 17, 2005

JERUSALEM -- Israeli troops arrested more than 30 Palestinian militants in raids across the West Bank Saturday, while Egyptian officials prepared to travel to the Gaza Strip for talks aimed at ending a wave of violence that has left a 5-month-old Mideast truce in tatters.

Palestinian militants in Gaza, meanwhile, launched homemade rockets and mortar shells at Israeli targets throughout the day, with several rockets hitting the Israeli town of Sderot, the army said. No injuries were reported.

The violence threatened to intensify, with Israeli troops massed at two makeshift camps outside Gaza. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told army commanders late Friday to plan for a ground operation in northern Gaza, though a raid would be delayed to give the Palestinians time to take action themselves.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said he feared the army was planning to create a buffer zone in the coastal strip ahead of Israel's planned pullout from the volatile territory next month. "The Israeli tanks around Gaza are very, very dangerous. I am afraid that this will create serious problems," he said.

Israel stepped up its operations against Palestinian militants after a suicide bombing Tuesday killed five people and a rocket attack on an Israeli town Thursday killed a 22-year-old woman.

Israeli airstrikes Friday, which signaled it had resumed its policy of targeted killings of militants, killed four Palestinian militants in a van filled with homemade rockets in Gaza and another militant at a hideout near the West Bank town of Salfit.

A militant also was killed in a follow-up raid on the hideout and another died Saturday of wounds suffered in the Salfit strike. An eighth Palestinian was killed by soldiers near Salfit in a stonethrowing incident, hospital officials said.

Israel said the targeted killings were intended to prevent imminent attacks by militants.

"Israel's policy is not to allow 'ticking bombs' to reach their targets," Amos Gilad, a top Defense Department official, told Israel Radio on Saturday. "Every pinpoint attack saves lives."

As part of the ongoing series of raids, the army arrested more than 30 militants in the West Bank cities of Hebron, Bethlehem, Nablus and Tulkarem on Saturday, the army said.

"Israel will not forfeit its basic right to self defense, especially in the face of a continued and persistent Palestinian refusal to prevent terrorist attacks against Israel," said David Baker, an official in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office.

The violence also led to increased internal tensions among the Palestinians.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas had resisted U.S. and Israeli demands to crack down on the militants, preferring instead to persuade them to voluntarily end attacks on Israel and to sign on to the Feb. 8 truce deal.

However, Palestinian police, trying to stop the rocket firing, waged a gunbattle with Hamas militants in the streets of Gaza City on Friday that left two people dead.

In an effort to restore calm, Egypt will send Mustafa Behairy, a deputy to Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, to Gaza on Sunday to meet with Abbas and Hamas leaders, according to Egyptian officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of damaging the sensitive mediation effort.

Egypt, which shares a border with Gaza, has been a key mediator between Israel and the Palestinians and among the various Palestinian factions.

In a sign of concern, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice scrambled her schedule to squeeze in a trip to the region -- expected next week -- and a U.S. spokesman urged both sides to "seize the opportunity" to make Israel's scheduled Gaza withdrawal a success despite the recent violence.

After a meeting late Friday between Abbas and top security officials, Palestinian security chief Nasser Yousef said the government remained committed to restoring calm.

"We are going to continue to accelerate our efforts to implement law and order and to control the situation," he said.

However, the militants continued attacking Israeli targets, firing 23 rockets and mortar shells at Israeli towns and Gaza settlements Saturday.

Hamas said the attacks were retaliation for violence earlier this week, but the barrages also appeared aimed at sending a message to Abbas, underscoring their demands to share power in Gaza after Israel withdraws.

At a funeral for four men killed in a missile strike, Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, called for Abbas to fire Yousef and blamed the Palestinian Authority for the fighting Friday.

"We didn't start this. We didn't raise our weapons against Palestinians," he said Saturday. "The resistance can't be arrested, and fighters will not be jailed."

Palestinian security forces made a more subtle show of force Saturday when they filed through the streets of the West Bank city of Ramallah and told shopowners to ignore militants' call to strike in mourning for those killed in the airstrikes. In response, some storeowners reopened their stores.

Qureia said he was optimistic the split with Hamas would soon be resolved.

"I am completely assured that we will get back to our unity, if not today, then maybe tomorrow. We have nothing to disagree on," he said, adding that he believed the truce would continue.

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