Israel expands control; Arafat claims he's not target of Bush

JERUSALEM -- Israeli troops took over the seventh of the West Bank's eight major cities Tuesday, after President Bush laid out a peace plan widely interpreted here as an American nod of approval for an offensive that is confining at least 700,000 Palestinians to their homes.

Smoke billowed over Hebron when the Israeli army blew up a building within the fortress-like municipal compound. Israeli soldiers exchanged heavy gunfire with Palestinian police inside the compound throughout the day, and four officers were reported killed. Security officials said about 200 Palestinian officers had been detained.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat seemed the lone Palestinian optimist following Bush's Monday speech, saying the American president certainly wasn't referring to him in the call for Palestinians to elect new leaders who are "not compromised by terror."

Speaking to reporters at his Ramallah headquarters, Arafat said it was incorrect to conclude Bush's speech was critical of him, saying Bush had spoken about a Palestinian state and elections. Palestinians proudly carried out democratic elections in 1996, he said, repeating "democratic" three times for emphasis.

Asked if Bush's call for a change in leadership referred to him, Arafat said: "Definitely not."

In Washington, the State Department said U.S. diplomats had opened talks with Arab governments to seek support for Bush's plan to remove Arafat and push the Palestinian Authority toward democratic reform.

Internationally, Bush's speech received words of praise, but his call for a change in Palestinian leadership got no endorsement from the European Union, the United Nations or Russia.

Britain, a close U.S. ally, did not endorse the call either. In London, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told Parliament that if Arafat were re-elected, Britain would continue to work with him. Britain's Press Association news agency quoted Prime Minister Tony Blair as saying Palestinians would choose whom they wished, but it was important to have leaders "prepared to make a deal."

Reforms to be announced

Arafat aide Saeb Erekat said the Palestinian Authority would announce on Wednesday its reform plans and dates for municipal, legislative and presidential elections.

The extremist Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups, which have carried out dozens of suicide bombings against Israelis and promised more, said Bush's speech would do nothing but encourage Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to continue a week-old military offensive.

Erekat shied from saying Bush had effectively endorsed the military operation, but said: "Sharon's endgame since he came to office has been to pursue the occupation."

Israel re-entered Palestinian areas in the West Bank after suicide bombers carried out back-to-back attacks that killed 26 Israelis.

Israeli troops have met little resistance in the operation, which began a month after they wrapped up a six-week West Bank campaign in which dozens of Palestinian militiamen were arrested or killed.

The only major West Bank town free of Israeli troops was Jericho, isolated in the Jordan Valley.

The army has barred journalists from all the key cities and towns it has entered, but the army escorted a group to the outskirts of Nablus near the Balata refugee camp Tuesday. The city was under curfew and looked largely deserted. A trench severed the road into town.

Capt. Kobi Veller, 25, commander of an army company holding the Balata area, said some arrests had been made, but not on a mass scale. He said soldiers entered the city as needed "to prevent terrorists from going out."

Veller said Israeli troops had seen some resistance in the area and had fired warning shots at curfew violators. Palestinians also planted explosives along the road and threw stones and firebombs at armored vehicles, he said.

Among Israelis, Bush's speech was widely viewed as a sign that Washington finally understood what Israel has been going through with terror attacks. But, officially, efforts were made to avoid any appearance of gloating.

At a parliamentary committee meeting Tuesday attended by Sharon, Brig. Gen. Yossi Kupperwasser, chief of research at the intelligence corps, said Bush's speech was "a cold shower for the Arabs," a participant told reporters on condition of anonymity.

Sharon, the official said, responded: "You shouldn't talk like that. Don't present the speech as something bad for the Arab world." He added that "for those who want peace with the Arabs, it was a very good speech."