Israelis tighten grip on towns in widest operation in years

Monday, October 22, 2001

JERUSALEM -- Israeli tanks moved deeper into West Bank on Sunday, tightening their grip on biblical Bethlehem and five other towns in the widest operation against the Palestinians in years.

Three Palestinians were killed Sunday, and the Palestinian Health Ministry said a teen-age boy wounded in fighting last month died of his wounds.

The 3-day-old assault, retaliation for the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister by a radical PLO faction, drew harsh international criticism and set off disagreements within Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's coalition government.

In New York, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Sunday that Israel does not intend to stay in the areas it entered, according to a spokesman for Israel's U.N. Mission.

"We do not want to overthrow the Palestinian Authority," the spokesman quoted Peres as saying.

Some members of the moderate Labor Party threatened to bolt the coalition -- a move that could badly hobble the government -- if the escalation continued.

The focus of violence Sunday was Bethlehem, where Palestinians said three people were killed by Israeli gunfire -- a police officer and a civilian in a nearby refugee camp and another civilian when a shell landed near a hospital. Israel's army said Palestinians threw a bomb at an Israeli tank near the refugee camp, setting off an exchange of fire, and were looking into the hospital incident.

Palestinians reported two injuries in Sunday's fighting when a tank shell exploded 50 yards from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, marking the birthplace of Jesus.

A few miles north of Jerusalem, Israeli troops also moved farther into Ramallah -- the seat of Yasser Arafat's government in the West Bank -- and took over the Palestinian Local Affairs Ministry.

Israeli officials said the moves were made necessary by Arafat's inaction against militant groups refusing to honor a Sept. 26 cease-fire, and dismissed as rhetoric Palestinian claims Arafat had outlawed such groups in recent days.

Palestinians say Arafat arrested 20 members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which claimed responsibility for Wednesday's killing of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi.

The Israeli incursions into the outskirts of six of the eight Palestinian towns in the West Bank were the most extensive since Israel began handing over land to the Palestinians in 1994 under interim peace accords.

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