Israel takes over West Bank town -- first in 16 months

Tuesday, January 22, 2002

TULKAREM, West Bank -- Israeli troops searched homes and traded fire with Palestinians as the military took over an entire Palestinian town Monday, a first in 16 months of fighting and another blow to beleaguered Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Dozens of tanks rumbled through the streets of Tulkarem, emptied by a military curfew. Troops firing tank-mounted machine guns fought with Palestinian militiamen and rounded up suspected militants. The exchanges of gunfire went on through the night. Three Palestinians were killed and 23 wounded in clashes in Tulkarem and in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Israel said the seizure was in response to lethal attacks on Israelis and that it was doing the job Arafat failed to do -- rounding up militants.

Israel hinted that other towns in the northern West Bank might be targeted next. "In the absence of Palestinian Authority security activity, Israel has entered Tulkarem to remove that threat," said Israeli government spokesman Dore Gold.

The Palestinians accused Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of trying to bring down Arafat and destroy all prospects for a resumption of peace talks.

'Crossed red lines'

A defiant Arafat said the Palestinians would resist the Israeli incursion, saying Israel "crossed all the red lines" by taking over Tulkarem.

"Our people will never keep silence about all of these Israeli attacks," he told visitors at his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah, which has been surrounded by Israeli tanks since Friday.

In a rare reference to his own mortality, Arafat also suggested he might not be around to see the establishment of a Palestinian state. "I swear to God I will see the Palestinian state, as a martyr or while still alive," Arafat said.

Israel's Cabinet has not formally decided to try to topple Arafat, and government officials have said the latest actions were intended to pressure him to crack down on militants.

Israel has raided Palestinian-ruled areas many times since fighting broke out in September 2000. However, Monday marked the first time Israel took control of an entire major Palestinian town since Palestinian self-rule began in 1994.

Army commanders said troops would stay in Tulkarem for days, not weeks, but Gold said that "we are not putting a time limit on this."

The Tulkarem raid came as a reprisal for a shooting attack last week by a Palestinian militant on a banquet hall in the Israeli town of Hadera. The gunman, who set out from Tulkarem according to the army, killed six Israelis before being shot dead by police. Palestinian militants said they launched the Hadera attack after the death of a militant leader in Tulkarem, blamed on Israel.

Tanks rumbled into Tulkarem, a town of 50,000 Palestinians, early Monday. "We saw the tanks coming and we ran," said Palestinian policeman Jihad Abu Tawfik, 47.

Elsewhere, Israeli troops met with resistance, especially in the adjacent Tulkarem refugee camp to which many gunmen had fled.

Tulkarem was largely deserted, and shops were shuttered.

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