Israeli troops search West Bank for suspected militants

Sunday, June 2, 2002

NABLUS, West Bank -- Israeli troops searched house-to-house Saturday as tanks patrolled deserted streets in four Palestinian cities and towns in a sweep of the West Bank that has rounded up dozens of suspected militants over the past two days.

In Nablus, scene of the biggest operation, a Palestinian man was shot dead by Israeli forces, witnesses say.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who is under strong pressure to restructure his government, has been holding talks on overhauling his large Cabinet.

In the coming days, he is likely to reduce the number of ministers from 32 to 19, and bring in new faces, according to Palestinian political sources.

In an interview to be published in a Greek newspaper on Sunday Arafat said elections would "most probably" be held in 2002, as part of "sweeping" reforms in the Palestinian Authority.

"Very soon, there will be elections for president and legislators," Arafat said in the interview with the Athens daily Vradini. "Very soon. Most probably within 2002."

The text of the interview was faxed to The Associated Press in Athens on Saturday

But the senior Israeli official in the West Bank and Gaza Strip said any reforms Arafat was likely to agree to would only be cosmetic as long as he controls the flow of money to Palestinian institutions.

"There is no possibility of real reform as long as Yasser Arafat holds in his hands the financial power," Brig. Gen. Amos Gilead, coordinator of Israeli activities in the Palestinian territories, said in an Israeli television interview.

The Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds reported Saturday that Arafat would make Mohammed Dahlan, a senior security chief in the Gaza Strip, the top official in the revamped security services.

The developments came as visiting diplomats held talks with Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a search for ways to end 20 months of Mideast violence. No new peace initiatives emerged.

Arafat on Saturday hosted European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who said the talks focused on reforming the Palestinian security system, rebuilding Palestinian infrastructure damaged in recent Israeli military actions, and how to restart peace negotiations, which collapsed more than a year ago.

Sharon met U.S. Middle East envoy William Burns on Friday, and the Israeli leader repeated his position that there would be no negotiations until there is an end to violence and reform in the Palestinian Authority.

Meanwhile, the almost daily Israeli forays into Palestinian territory have come to resemble police operations carried out with tanks and armored personnel carriers.

In the largest raid, Israeli troops searched house-to-house for a second day Saturday in the Balata refugee camp, a militant stronghold on the edge of Nablus, in the northern West Bank.

Israel said about 50 Palestinian suspects were arrested and a bomb-making workshop was found, and then demolished in a controlled explosion. Palestinians said that hundreds of men were rounded up Friday in the camp and about 100 were taken in trucks to a nearby military base for interrogation.

The soldiers also patrolled the deserted streets of Nablus, which is under curfew, and made arrests Saturday in a residential area near Al-Najah University, where many students live.

A group of men defied the curfew and attended prayers at the mosque in Nablus' Old City, Palestinian witnesses said. An Israeli armored personnel carrier fired on them as they were leaving, killing Tareq el-Kharaz, 24, Palestinian doctors said.

Israel said its troops came under fire several times in the Nablus area, and returned fire, but did not have any information about a Palestinian being killed.

Troops also entered the nearby village of Tamoun, about 10 miles northeast of Nablus, using small explosives to break down the doors of some homes, Palestinians said. The army said eight suspects were arrested.

Soldiers in armored vehicles also entered Bethlehem's Dheisheh refugee camp before dawn, where they arrested one suspect before leaving several hours later, the army said. At a Bethlehem checkpoint, a Palestinian woman attempted to stab an Israeli soldier, the army said. She was overpowered by the soldier and taken into custody.

The Bethlehem raid marked the third time in a week the army has gone into the city, just south of Jerusalem. In several recent Palestinian suicide bombings, the attacker has come from the Bethlehem area.

Israeli tanks and troops briefly went in and out of the town of Tulkarem overnight -- then went back in again Saturday afternoon. The army said it shot and wounded two armed men, capturing one of them while the other escaped.

Most recent Israeli raids have lasted for only a few hours as the troops have gone in quickly to make arrests, then pulled out. In most instances, they have faced little Palestinian resistance.

However, the Nablus operation was bigger than most, involving dozens of armored vehicles. The refugee camp is a stronghold of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia that has carried out many deadly attacks, and which is linked to Arafat's Fatah movement.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: