Israeli troops surround West Bank town

JENIN, West Bank -- Israeli tanks encircled this West Bank town early Tuesday in an open-ended foray into Palestinian territory that came in response to a string of attacks by Palestinian militants. Amid the rising tensions, high-level truce talks were postponed once more.

Also Tuesday, two Israeli troops were killed in a Palestinian shooting attack on their base, and an Israeli man was wounded by Palestinian fire in the West Bank.

Israel said it sealed Jenin because the town of 50,000 in the northern West Bank has turned into a staging ground for dozens of attacks by Palestinian militants, including a weekend suicide bombing that killed three Israeli civilians.

After midnight Monday, some two dozen tanks set up positions in Palestinian territory, on the outskirts of Jenin and an adjacent refugee camp, Palestinian witnesses said. Dozens of local gunmen fired at the Israeli troops, drawing return fire that wounded seven Palestinians, one seriously.

In nearly a year of fighting, Israeli troops have repeatedly entered Palestinian territory, but usually pulled out quickly. The incursion near Jenin marked the fourth time that Israeli forces remained in position for more than just a few hours.

'Won't be so quick to end'

Israeli military commentator Zeev Schiff, writing in the Haaretz daily, suggested that the incursion "won't be so quick to end," as Israel is intensifying its response to attacks by Palestinian militants.

Asked about the duration of the incursion, Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman Yarden Vatikay said: "I have no answer because all we care about is ensuring that terrorists do not come out of Jenin."

Some of the tanks drove toward the first line of houses in Jenin, Palestinian witnesses said. Before dawn, Israeli tank fire knocked out power for several hours. The army confirmed troops were operating in Palestinian territory and that a tank shell was fired toward Jenin in response to Palestinian fire.

After daybreak, the streets of Jenin were deserted, with storefronts shuttered and residents remaining in their homes. Small groups of gunmen moved around, sporadically firing at Israeli positions.

Ali Mothqal, a Jenin taxi driver, said when there were first signs of Israeli troop movements late Monday, he rushed outside to stock up on flour, bread and canned goods. "I haven't left my home since then," he said.

A month ago, Israeli troops entered Jenin and demolished the main security building, but pulled out after several hours. At the time, Israeli security officials said Jenin had turned into a stronghold for Palestinian militants.

Dozens of attacks

The Israeli government said Tuesday that dozens of suicide and car bombings as well as shooting attacks on Israelis have been launched from Jenin.

On Sunday, an Israeli Arab man blew himself up near a train station in the northern Israeli town of Nahariya, killing himself and three Israeli Jews. The Islamic militant group Hamas in Jenin announced Monday that it had sent the assailant.

Israeli officials have said they had demanded that the Palestinian Authority arrest the bomber while he was still in Jenin, but to no avail.

Since the violence erupted nearly a year ago, 611 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 172 on the Israeli side.

Commenting on the Jenin incursion, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said that "despite the continuous military escalation, the siege, our people are steadfast ... and we will not kneel before anyone, except before God in prayer."

Continued disagreements

Palestinian officials said truce talks between Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres would not be held Tuesday evening -- as initially envisioned -- because of the Jenin incursion and continued disagreement over the venue.

Peres wants to hold the first of three rounds of talks at the Erez crossing near the Gaza Strip, while Arafat insists the meeting take place in Cairo.

The Palestinian leader was to leave for Egypt later Tuesday, ahead of a meeting Wednesday with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Arafat, who is eager to mend his strained relationship with the Syrians, might have been reluctant to hold high-profile talks with Peres just hours before flying to Damascus.

Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Shaath said the Peres-Arafat meeting has been postponed for a few days, but not canceled.

European Union officials have been trying for the past three weeks to arrange high-level truce talks.