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Israel Tightens Grip, Sends More Tanks to West Bank

Mideast: Major battle appears to loom in Nablus. The two sides applaud planned Powell visit to region, but neither stands down.


NABLUS, West Bank — Israeli tanks with searchlights rumbled through darkened, near-deserted streets here late Thursday, tightening their hold on Nablus, the West Bank's largest city, and surrounding three refugee camps where Palestinian gunmen were barricaded behind sandbags and garbage bins.

Fifty-six miles to the south, Israeli armor backed by helicopter gunships thrust into Palestinian-ruled parts of the divided city of Hebron in an incursion that brought at least part of every West Bank city except sleepy Jericho under Israeli occupation.

On the seventh day of the Israeli offensive, street battles raged in Jenin, where four helicopter gunships fired into the town and a nearby refugee camp. In Bethlehem, gunfire and explosions erupted early today in a 3-day-old standoff between the Israeli army and about 100 Palestinian gunmen holed up inside the Church of the Nativity.

Five Palestinians and four Israeli soldiers were reported killed Thursday in fighting across the West Bank.

Both sides applauded President Bush's decision to send Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on a peace mission but voiced no intent to stop the bloodshed.

Ignoring an appeal from Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office announced that the offensive would continue. Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, chief of the Israeli army general staff, said the offensive needs three more weeks to achieve its objective, followed by four weeks of "mopping up."

'The Occupation Will Inevitably End'

Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian Authority president, praised Palestinian fighters in Nablus and Jenin for "standing up to the savage Israeli aggression."

Arafat said he was "confident that the occupation will inevitably end." Invoking the Koran, he added: "Persevere, persevere. It only takes an hour of perseverance."

Israel launched the assault March 29 to crush Palestinian militias that have carried out deadly attacks on Israeli civilians, including seven suicide bombings. The trigger was a March 27 attack at the start of the Passover holiday.

Since then, at least 78 Palestinians and 63 Israelis have been killed, and more than 1,100 Palestinians have been arrested. Israeli television reported Thursday night that the government would reopen a long-abandoned prison in the southern desert for them.

Thursday's heaviest fighting was reported in Jenin and in the northern city's refugee camp. Israeli commandos moved from house to house in the camp, helped by fire from helicopters and tanks. Soldiers seized two buildings on the edge of the camp and were quickly surrounded by Palestinian militants, who exchanged fire with them.

Three Palestinian gunmen and three Israeli soldiers were reported killed. The fourth Israeli soldier died in Hebron.

But the biggest battle appeared to be looming in this city of 180,000 people.

Residents said as many as 400 Israeli armored vehicles had poured into Nablus since late Wednesday, prompting hundreds of Palestinian gunmen to take refuge in the labyrinthine old city and three adjacent refugee camps.

Advancing armor detonated land mines that had been laid in their path, while helicopter gunships fired on Palestinian fighters. Palestinian resistance was reported to be strongest along the city's eastern flank, where Balata, the largest of the refugee camps, is located.

Balata, with a population of about 20,000, is a hotbed of Palestinian militancy and home to most top commanders of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which has carried out suicide bombings.

The Israelis took up positions at the Palestinian governor's residence and at An Najah University. Israeli snipers occupied tall buildings and top-floor apartments, obscuring their positions behind green netting.

Israeli gunfire killed a Palestinian man when he opened a window in his apartment, Palestinian officials said. Palestinian hospitals reported four people were killed and seven wounded.

Israeli Intent to Consolidate Control

Hussam Khader, a Palestinian legislator and popular leader in Balata, said he thought the Israelis would consolidate their hold on the city proper before taking the camps.

In Israel's more limited incursion last month, troops went house-to-house in Balata, but the gunmen slipped into hiding in the city, eluding capture. This time, the Israelis apparently intend to seal off the escape route by securing the city.

That would mean focusing on the old city, the cramped warren of homes and small businesses that is a nightmare for the urban invader.

"Once they get the old city, it will be easier for them to take the camps, " Khader said.

Electricity was cut off to parts of the city Thursday. Streets were deserted, except for stray cats. Searchlights mounted on tanks scanned the sides of buildings. Scattered gunfire erupted, and tracer bullets raced across the sky.

"There is a curfew," an Israeli announced in Arabic over a loudspeaker mounted on an armored personnel carrier. "You're not allowed to go outside."

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