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Israel Broadens Offensive as 2 Suicide Attacks Kill 17

Mideast: Troops push into more Palestinian towns in the West Bank. Sharon tightens siege on Arafat. Each vows to fight to the end.


RAMALLAH, West Bank — Steadfast enemies for more than two decades, Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat vowed a fight to the finish as fresh carnage Sunday plunged this region deeper into warfare.

Israel widened its military offensive in the Palestinian territories, sending ground forces into two more West Bank cities, and Palestinian suicide bombers launched their fourth and fifth attacks in five days, killing 17 people and wounding dozens.

One blast devastated a restaurant in the northern Israeli port of Haifa where Israeli Arabs and Jews mixed freely, killing the attacker and 15 others and injuring as many as 41. In the second incident, in the Jewish settlement of Efrat in the West Bank, the assailant blew himself up, wounding four medics.

As Israeli forces tightened their harsh siege on Arafat and Ramallah, the city that is the Palestinian Authority president's power base, the Israeli government ordered all journalists to leave the area. Some were ordered to submit their reports to a military censor.

In a televised address to his despondent nation, Sharon branded Arafat "an enemy of the entire free world" who must be "uprooted" along with the terrorism network that the Israeli prime minister insists Arafat directs.

"We must fight against this terrorism, fight with no compromise, pull up these wild plants by the roots, smash their infrastructure, because there is no compromise with terrorism," said a grim-faced Sharon, his brow deeply furrowed.

He told Israelis that they are fighting a war for their existence but offered no new ideas for resolving the conflict. Instead, he repeated a simple, blunt justification for Israel's thrust into the West Bank. The Jewish state, he said, is at war against "terrorism"--a word he used about 15 times in his four minutes on the air.

Arafat, taking advantage of visiting foreign activists who had sneaked past Israeli tanks into his compound, announced to the world that he would never surrender.

"Victory will be here sooner than expected, God willing," Arafat said, hugging his visitors and mugging for TV cameras.

Israel began laying siege to Ramallah on Friday after a suicide bombing on the first night of Passover killed 23 people in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya.

The military incursion was intended as a campaign to eliminate terrorism, but instead new bombings have followed almost every day. Israel, ignoring international calls for restraint, apparently planned to replicate the Ramallah siege in other West Bank towns as part of a sweeping operation.

Tanks moved into the West Bank town of Kalkilya late Sunday, electricity was cut and gun battles could be heard, residents said. Tanks also were entering Bethlehem early today, witnesses said. The army might have been waiting until Easter was over before invading the largely Christian area.

Witnesses said tanks moved to within 500 feet of the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus. Also early today, tanks roared into the village of Khader, just south of Bethlehem.

In Ramallah on Sunday, Israeli troops rounded up dozens of Palestinian men and spent a third day conducting intensive house-to-house searches. Troops occupied homes, businesses and public buildings, including the Chamber of Commerce.

Tanks and armored troop transports plied the streets, chopping the pavement, flattening cars that got in the way and toppling light posts and traffic signs. The air was full of dust and the smell of burning rubber.

Palestinians Trapped in Their Homes

The siege has trapped tens of thousands of Palestinians in their homes. Few dare emerge into the streets for fear of being shot.

In the kind of scene that was repeated throughout central Ramallah, Israeli troops were inspecting the faded home of an elderly man Sunday. In the back garden, about 20 men in civilian clothes could be seen, seated or squatting on the ground, their hands bound by plastic handcuffs, with soldiers standing guard. An officer said the men were fighters who had used the home to hide their weapons.

The goal of the Ramallah operation, Sharon has said, is not to kill Arafat but to isolate him. To further tighten the noose, Israeli troops took cars belonging to Palestinian residents and laid them on their sides, bumper to bumper, across almost every street leading to Arafat's compound.

Consequently, Sharon's government was livid Sunday when a group of international peace activists, accompanied by journalists, marched past the tanks surrounding Arafat's headquarters and strolled in to see the Palestinian leader.

The activists took water and a small amount of food but, most important, gave Arafat a platform. About 30 of them said they planned to stay in the compound to serve as a human shield for him. Ten of the activists, along with three Palestinian ambulance medics, were arrested later by Israeli soldiers and taken to a nearby base, a member of the group said.

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