Israel seizes territory in two more Palestinian towns; 8 killed
JERUSALEM -- Israeli troops entered two more West Bank towns Saturday in what was emerging as the broadest Israeli military operation in more than a year of fighting. Eight Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire.
The incursions -- six in three days -- were triggered by the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister by Palestinian militants earlier this week. With the military action, Israel is trying to pressure the Palestinian Authority to arrest and hand over the assassins, and crack down on Palestinian militant groups.
The U.S. State Department said Friday that the Israeli incursions "complicate the situation and should be halted."
The escalation threatens Washington's efforts to retain Arab and Muslim support for military action against Islamic militants suspected of having masterminded the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington. The United States is courting moderate Arab states and fears Israel-Palestinian violence could interfere.
Visiting Russian Mideast peace envoy Andrei Vedozen told reporters after meeting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the Gaza Strip that it was time for intensive efforts to save the floundering peace process.
"What is happening now is a dangerous military escalation," he said. "This is a dangerous threat to the peace process."
At about 3 a.m. Saturday, Israeli tanks entered the towns of Qalqilya and Tulkarem in the northern West Bank, and troops set up positions on the rooftops of several homes.
They were met by Palestinian fire, and four Palestinians were killed in the fighting, doctors said.
Suicide bomber fears
An Israeli government spokesman, Arnon Perlman, said troops sealed the two towns because of warnings that militants there were preparing to launch suicide attacks in Israel. Perlman said he had no further details.
Fresh fighting erupted in the towns of Beit Jalla, Bethlehem and the nearby Aida refugee camp, all just south of Jerusalem, where Israeli troops had set up positions Friday.
Israeli officials would not say how long the troops would stay in the six towns.
Israeli troops have repeatedly entered Palestinian towns in the past year, but the raids launched Thursday marked the broadest Israeli military strike so far.
In Ramallah, security officials said they arrested 12 activists of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the radical PLO faction that has claimed responsibility for the killing of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi.
The arrests late Friday brought to 20 the number of PFLP activists in custody. It was not clear if any of the detainees were suspects in the Zeevi killing.
The Palestinian Authority has said it will try to catch Zeevi's killers, but not extradite them.
The PFLP has said it assassinated Zeevi, an ultra-nationalist, to avenge its own leader, Mustafa Zibri, who was killed in a targeted Israeli rocket attack in August.
In a warning to militant groups, the Palestinian leadership said Friday that all those violating a Sept. 26 truce agreement with Israel would be considered "outside the law."
The statement appeared intentionally vague. It did not name any specific group as outlawed, and it was not clear whether it was a precursor to arrest sweeps demanded by Israel.
Ahmed Abdel Rahman, the secretary general of the Palestinian Cabinet, said Saturday that the statement meant that the military wings of various Palestinian factions were illegal, including that of the PFLP.
"No one has the right to violate the cease-fire agreement," Abdel Rahman said.