BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- In one of Israel's biggest incursions into Palestinian territory, the army sent tanks into biblical Bethlehem on Friday, commandeering two hotels for its troops as it stepped up pressure on the Palestinians following the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister.
Six Palestinians were killed Friday, including three in the Bethlehem area, Palestinians said. Israelis and Palestinians both appeared to be gearing for further conflict despite international calls to observe an oft-ignored Mideast truce.
Israeli forces have charged into several Palestinians areas in the West Bank over the past two days, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government has suspended contacts with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. The moves are part of a tough response to Wednesday's shooting death of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, who was slain by members of a radical Palestinian group that is on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations.
"We consider this comprehensive Israeli attack an implementation to a war policy against the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people," the Palestinian leadership said in a collective statement. The Palestinians said the Israelis were "taking advantage" of Zeevi's killing to "reoccupy more Palestinian land."
Snipers atop hotels
Israel sent some 30 tanks and armored personnel carriers into Bethlehem and adjacent Beit Jalla before dawn Friday after Palestinian militants fired on a nearby Jewish neighborhood on the southern fringe of Jerusalem.
Israeli troops fortified their positions Friday, establishing sniper positions on top of two Bethlehem hotels. About two miles away, thousands of Palestinians chanting "Revenge!" marched through the center of the tense town as part of the funeral for three Palestinian militants killed Thursday.
Palestinians packed Manger Square in Bethlehem, next to the traditional birthplace of Jesus, with some militants firing rifles in the air, as the three bodies were brought for the funeral procession.
Bethlehem, a town heavily dependent on foreign tourists, has been badly hit by the fighting, and many hotels have been shut for months for lack of business. The Israeli troops took over two of the empty hotels -- the Paradise and the luxury Inter-Continental -- placing tanks in front, soldiers inside, and snipers on the roofs, witnesses said.
Soldiers and Palestinians exchanged periodic gunfire Friday, while youths threw stones, burned tires and pushed trash bins into the street in an attempt to block the Israeli advance. Three Palestinians were killed in the Bethlehem area. One of the victims was a 28-year-old woman, hit in her home by what appeared to be a stray bullet, Palestinian officials said. Israel's army said it was checking the reports.
Three Israeli soldiers were wounded, one seriously, the army said.
Israeli forces have entered Palestinian territory on many occasions during the Mideast fighting, but only rarely have they stayed for more than a few hours. The Israeli positions at the hotels, which are set on normally crowded main streets in Bethlehem, suggested the Israelis could be preparing for an indefinite stay.