Associated Press WriterBEIT RIMA, West Bank (AP) -- Israeli forces searching for the assassins of a Cabinet minister entered a West Bank village Wednesday and battled with armed Palestinians. At least six Palestinians were killed in one of the bloodiest clashes in more than a year of fighting.
Palestinian security officials said Israeli forces arrested four Palestinians suspected in the Oct. 17 killing of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi.
The new Israeli incursion came despite President Bush's request that Israel withdraw "as quickly as possible" from Palestinian areas it has seized since Zeevi's slaying.
Israeli forces entered the village of Beit Rima after midnight and encountered armed resistance, the Israeli army said. Israeli military sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said six Palestinians were killed, but Palestinian officials said the toll was at least nine.
The Israeli army commander in the West Bank, Brig. Gen. Gershon Yitzhak, said the militants who assassinated Zeevi lived in the village, north of the town of Ramallah.
The Palestinian Cabinet issued a statement charging Israel with carrying out an "ugly massacre" in Beit Rima, saying that nine Palestinians were killed and dozens wounded. The statement called for world and U.S. pressure on Israel to "immediately put an end to this continuous aggression and offer protection for Palestinian civilians."
Israeli forces also entered another West Bank village, Deir Ghassaneh, in what the military called anti-terrorist operations.
In other towns held by Israeli forces, four Palestinians were killed Wednesday. Three were ambushed by Israeli soldiers in Tulkarem, Palestinians said. The Israeli military said soldiers opened fire on armed men.
Just outside Jerusalem, in the West Bank town of Abu Dis, a Palestinian was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers, doctors said. The Palestinian and others were throwing firebombs at soldiers who fired rubber-coated steel bullets in response, the army said.
In Bethlehem, a 55-year-old Palestinian man was hit by a bullet, Palestinians said. The Israeli military was checking the report. Israeli tanks and troops held positions in Bethlehem a few miles from the Church of the Nativity, marking the traditional birthplace of Jesus, for a sixth day.
After Zeevi's assassination, Israeli tanks and troops moved into six West Bank towns, exchanging fire with gunmen, in Israel's largest military operation in the West Bank since 1994. Several dozen Palestinians have been killed in the incursions, many of them civilians.
The Israeli operation in Beit Rima was still going on 12 hours after troops first entered. Palestinians complained that Israeli forces did not allow their ambulances to enter the village to evacuate the wounded. Israeli army spokesman Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz said the ambulances were banned "because the operation was still in progress."
Israel's move into the two villages overnight came despite U.S. demands to withdraw from Palestinian territory.
Bush met with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres at the White House on Tuesday. Later, Bush said, "I did express our concern about troops in Palestinian territory and I would hope the Israelis would move their troops as quickly as possible."
However, in a speech to mark seven days since Zeevi was assassinated, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon repeated his conditions for a pullout. He said the Palestinians must arrest Zeevi's killers and turn them over, disarm militants and crush rogue groups that have been attacking Israel.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said that Israel is ignoring U.S. policy. Arafat spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh said Israel was "challenging" the United States by "conducting terror" against Palestinian civilians and refusing to withdraw from the Palestinian-controlled areas.
"The United States of America and the world should stop this aggression immediately," Abu Rdeneh said.
U.S. officials have expressed concern that the upsurge in Mideast violence could sabotage efforts to bring moderate Arab states into a coalition to fight international terrorism.
U.N. Mideast envoy Terje Roed-Larsen warned in a release Wednesday that Israel and the Palestinians faced "the most dangerous moment in a decade."