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Palestinian intelligence officers killed by Israeli troops
JERUSALEM -- Israeli forces raided four West Bank villages Tuesday, killing two Palestinian intelligence officers and arresting 15 suspected militants, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ruled out peace talks until attacks against Israel end.
Speaking to Israel's Knessset, Sharon said the raids aimed at rooting out Palestinian militants would continue, even though Israel's large-scale incursion into the West Bank has ended. "We will continue to fight terrorism by entering Palestinian-controlled areas when necessary," Sharon said. "There will be no sanctuary for terrorists."
Sharon was called to address Israel's Knesset after 40 lawmakers signed a petition demanding that he explain his policies regarding a future Palestinian state.
Sharon did not mention the issue of a Palestinian state in his speech, though his own Likud party, ignoring his advice, passed a resolution early Monday ruling out creation of such a state.
Instead, Sharon reiterated his refusal to restart peace talks until terror attacks end and the Palestinian leadership carries out fundamental reforms. "There can be no peace with a corrupt terror regime that is rotten and dictatorial," the prime minister said in reference to the Palestinian Authority, headed by Yasser Arafat. "There must be a different authority."
Only then could the two sides work out an accord for a "long-term interim period," that could eventually be followed by a final peace agreement, he said.
The Palestinians have rejected Sharon's proposals, saying they will enter peace talks only if they are focused on a final settlement and creation of a Palestinian state.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Nabil Shaath said Sharon should not put conditions on the Palestinians.
"This is a new attempt to freeze the efforts that have been exerted to revive the peace process," Shaath said.
After 19 months of Mideast fighting and increasing hardships, Palestinians have grown critical of Arafat and the Palestinian leadership. However, Arafat's position still appears solid for now, and Palestinians say they alone will choose their leaders.
Sharon had opposed the Likud resolution against a Palestinian state, saying it would tie his hands in negotiations and embarrass his government abroad. Despite losing that battle, Sharon's wider popularity with Israelis did not appear to suffer.
In a poll taken after the Likud decision and released Tuesday, 63 percent of Israelis said they would support the creation of a Palestinian state accompanied by a peace agreement. The Dahaf Institute poll, which surveyed 501 Israelis and had a margin of error of 4.5 percent, found 55 percent wanted Sharon as Likud's prime ministerial candidate for next year's elections.
Meanwhile, Israel's army pressed ahead with West Bank raids.
The Israeli forces said they killed two Palestinian intelligence officials in the village of Halhoul, north of Hebron.
The head of Palestinian intelligence in the area, Khalid Abu Kheiran, was killed, along with one of his deputies. According to Israel, both men were responsible for many attacks against Israelis.
The army said they were killed in an exchange of fire. Witnesses said the men were in a car pulling into a driveway when shooting broke out. A third man was arrested and a fourth fled, witnesses said.
The car, its windshield riddled with bullets, remained parked next to the house witnesses said the men had been using as a hiding place for several months.
Later, at Abu Kheiran's funeral, Palestinian youths threw stones at Israeli troops, who fired into the air. No injuries were reported.
The army also said it arrested 14 Palestinian suspects in three raids on West Bank villages near the towns of Tulkarem and Nablus.
In Gaza, Israeli soldiers arrested an activist from the militant Hamas group after nightfall Tuesday, the military said. Soldiers stopped the truck he was driving and found two pipe bombs inside, a statement said.
The raids followed the completion last week of Israel's offensive into the West Bank that began March 29 in response to a series of Palestinian suicide bomb attacks.
A new incursion, expected to target the Gaza Strip in retaliation for another suicide bombing last week, was called off. Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Tuesday the last of the reservists called up for a Gaza incursion were sent home, leaving only those scheduled for annual duty still in uniform.
On Wednesday, Palestinians mark "Al Naqba," or the catastrophe, the anniversary of the day in 1948 the state of Israel was created and many Palestinians were uprooted.
The day has been marked in recent years with rallies and a traditional minute of silence. However, this year there were no marches or rallies planned. The only scheduled event was a speech by Arafat to the Palestinian Legislative Council.
Palestinians were too caught up with day-to-day difficulties to mark the day, Palestinian analyst Ghassan Khatib said. "We are living an ongoing Naqba, today, yesterday and tomorrow, that's why people feel it's not a special day," he said.