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Israel Steps Up West Bank Offensive

Incursion: A soldier and 12 Palestinians die. The Jewish state has near-total control of the area.

April 04, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israel controlled almost every major Palestinian city in the West Bank today after troops and armor shot their way into Nablus, a seething militant stronghold.

Twelve Palestinians and one Israeli soldier were killed Wednesday in operations across the West Bank.

A day after one of Christianity's holiest sites became a battlefield, columns of tanks rolled into Nablus and were headed toward the volatile Balata refugee camp, where heavy shooting was reported, witnesses said.

The advance into Nablus was the latest in Israel's takeover of towns and cities in the West Bank in a massive offensive that the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says is designed to stop a wave of suicide bombers.

Hundreds of Palestinians have been arrested, dozens killed and huge amounts of property destroyed. But Israeli officials say they haven't captured any top-level militants, and suicide bombings have continued unabated.

As Israel presses ahead with the campaign, the move into Nablus is especially risky. It is the Palestinians' largest West Bank city, with more than 180,000 people, and its cramped, labyrinthine old city, known as the casbah, has always been synonymous in the Israeli lexicon with nightmarish urban warfare.

Palestinian fighters were congregated earlier Wednesday in the casbah, where they were placing sandbags and planning resistance.

Several of the suicide attacks were launched from the Nablus area.

Also Wednesday, Israeli troops backed by helicopter gunships fought their way into the West Bank city of Jenin and the town of Salfit. A female nurse, a 13-year-old boy, a male civilian and three Palestinian gunmen, along with an Israeli soldier, were killed in that operation, security officials on both sides said.

In Bethlehem, a standoff between the Israeli army and about 100 Palestinian gunmen holed up inside the Church of the Nativity continued into a second day. The army said negotiations were underway to stave off a blood bath on the spot where Jesus is believed to have been born. Paratroops were fanning out through the narrow streets of Bethlehem.

Alarmed at the escalating war, the European Union decided to send a delegation to the region, but without assurances that it would even be allowed to meet Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who remains a captive in his Ramallah headquarters.

"This is now the most dangerous conflict in the world," Peter Hain, Britain's minister for Europe, said at a rare emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg.

Sharon convened Cabinet ministers to approve the next stage of the open-ended Operation Protective Wall.

The Palestinian Authority issued a statement calling on Palestinians to resist.

"The Palestinian leadership urges our people to close ranks in a long-term struggle against this occupation and to mobilize all its resources . . . to confront this unjust and criminal war," it said.

Under the landmark 1993 Oslo peace accords, eight West Bank cities were handed to the Palestinian Authority. Only two of them, Hebron and Jericho, were still under Palestinian control today.

In the others--Nablus, Ramallah, Kalkilya, Jenin, Tulkarm and Bethlehem--tanks patrolled streets and confined hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to their homes. In Ramallah, city officials said residents were without water after Israeli troops destroyed the main pumping station when shelling a Palestinian security compound.

In what some Israelis fear will be another front in the war, Israeli fighter jets pounded suspected guerrilla hide-outs in southern Lebanon after Israeli army outposts were repeatedly attacked in a disputed border area, security officials and witnesses said.

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