Israeli tanks pour into Jenin to hunt militants
Hundreds of Israeli soldiers backed by scores of tanks and other armoured vehicles took control of the Palestinian city of Jenin yesterday, retaliating for a suicide bombing that killed 14 people.
The incursion in the West Bank, from where Israel says Monday's bombing was launched, was the biggest since an army offensive in April triggered by suicide bombings. The army said it was pursuing militants planning attacks in coming days.
Israel carried out the raid even though US envoy William Burns was in the region discussing a "road map" for Middle East peacemaking. Washington wants Israeli-Palestinian violence to subside to help it obtain Arab support for possible war on Iraq.
The Israeli army announced it was easing curfews on Palestinian areas elsewhere in the West Bank and withdrawing some troops from the city of Hebron.
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat told reporters the Jenin operation was "a continuation of the crimes committed by troops and (Jewish) settlers against our people and our children".
His adviser, Nabil Abu Rdainah, said the military action "sabotaged US efforts regarding the road map plan".
Witnesses said troops commandeered 40 to 50 houses as stake-out posts in battle-scarred Jenin, reoccupied by the army in June after more suicide bombings in a now two-year-old Palestinian revolt and under curfew for most of the time since.
Palestinian hospital officials said six people had been shot and seriously injured since tanks rumbled in during the night. Israeli military sources said troops shot at armed Palestinians.
Armoured vehicles and tanks made frequent rounds through the city's streets and soldiers exchanged fire sporadically with Palestinian gunmen, witnesses said. Bulldozers began destroying local headquarters of the Palestinian national security force.
"Jenin has become the capital of terror," Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said yesterday. "When I speak of men and women suicide bombers, this is where they come from."
A senior Israeli commander said the operation, dubbed "Vanguard", was intended to root out about 20 militants.
"This operation is an outgrowth of this week's suicide car bombing," the Israeli commander said. "Our intelligence indicates that the bombing encouraged the terrorist cell in Jenin, which is now rearming and winning new recruits."
In Monday's attack, the bomber drove a car packed with explosives into a bus near the central Israeli city of Hadera. The militant Islamic Jihad group claimed responsibility.
Israel initially held back retaliation, apparently under pressure from the United States.
But yesterday, army officers said they were prepared for an indefinite stay in Jenin to prevent new attacks, just hours after Burns met Palestinian and Israeli officials separately.
Yet elsewhere in the West Bank there were signs of tensions easing. The army suspended its curfew in the cities of Nablus, Tulkarm and Qalqilya and said troops in several positions in the Palestinian part of divided Hebron were pulling out.
Palestinian witnesses disputed the Hebron report, saying soldiers were only moved to a newly commandeered building in the same area. The army did not immediately comment.
After the Burns talks, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat met to discuss relaxing a military clampdown on Palestinian cities. Burns met Palestinian officials again yesterday.
Washington wants Israel to ease crippling military closures and curfews imposed on Palestinian areas since the September 2000 start of the Palestinian uprising for independence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israel says the measures are needed to prevent attacks. The Palestinians say they amount to collective punishment.
Burns met Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Thursday evening in Jerusalem to discuss the US-led peace plan, which has had a cool reception from Israeli and Palestinian officials.
Israeli leaders said the plan - drafted by a "quartet" of mediators from the United States, Russia, the European Union and United Nations - lacked security guarantees. The Palestinians said it needed timetables and enforcement mechanisms.
The plan calls for an end to violence and for Palestinian administrative reforms and Israeli army withdrawals from occupied cities, leading to a final settlement and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by 2005.
At least 1,629 Palestinians, including a 65-year-old man who died yesterday from wounds sustained two weeks ago, and 618 Israelis have been killed since the uprising began.