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Israeli Attacks Persist Despite Call for Pullout

Mideast: Ahead of Powell's visit to region, army gains ground in two West Bank militant hot spots. A general says assault there could wind down as soon as today.


NABLUS, West Bank — Israeli troops and helicopters hammered away Sunday at determined but weakening Palestinian resistance in Nablus and in the Jenin refugee camp, the prime remaining targets of an Israeli military under international pressure to curtail its West Bank offensive.

Officials on both sides of the conflict reported that Israeli forces had gained ground, and a senior Israeli general predicted that the assault on the two strongholds could wind down as soon as today.

At least 30 Palestinians have been killed in house-to-house combat here in the last two days, including a legendary chief who fell Sunday as his forces retreated in a warren of underground tunnels and winding alleys.

And in a troubling development at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, a fire broke out early today on the second floor of the parish building of the Catholic monastery adjacent to the besieged church, which is occupied by more than 140 Palestinian gunmen and civilians.

Israeli gunfire killed a Palestinian policeman in the incident, according to a priest and a Palestinian official inside the historic site revered as Jesus' birthplace. Two Israeli soldiers were wounded in the exchange of fire with the Palestinians, according to Israeli officials.

At Israel's northern border, Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon unleashed another barrage of mortar and antitank fire into Israel, wounding six Israeli soldiers. That elicited a counterattack with artillery and rockets and an Israeli warning to Syria, which supports the guerrillas and permits their activity in Lebanon.

And on the increasingly sensitive political front, Israeli leaders defended their West Bank incursion a day after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rebuffed President Bush's call for Israel to withdraw from Palestinian territories without delay.

"This is a fateful battle," Sharon said at a Cabinet meeting Sunday, "a war for our homes."

But Sharon and his top aides sent conciliatory signals as well, saying they hope to finish the operation soon. Israeli leaders hinted that pullbacks could occur in calmer areas and announced the temporary lifting of curfews in cities including Ramallah, the site of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's battered headquarters, and the town of Jenin near the embattled refugee camp.

"Our time is running out" because of Bush administration requests and this week's diplomatic mission by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Defense Minister Bin-yamin Ben-Eliezer told Israeli radio. "But we will not pull out only to return soon."

The military cannot move more quickly, Israeli leaders argued, because it must uproot the infrastructure of terrorist groups while refraining from aerial and artillery bombardments to minimize civilian casualties. Israeli defense officials warned that an abrupt withdrawal--as demanded by European and Arab governments--could result in another calamitous round of Palestinian terrorism and Israeli retaliation.

"Now everybody wants us to get out of the territories," said Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, operations chief of the Israeli army, expressing reluctance to leave a mission unfinished. "If we do it too soon, another wave of terror will hit Israeli cities and streets. And we'll go back in again. Paradoxically, if we stay in we can do more to put an end to terrorism."

The crackdown has been a success, Harel said, noting that intelligence reports of suicide bomb plots in Palestinian territory have dropped dramatically. After near-daily suicide attacks killed 128 Israelis in March, a week has gone by without a major suicide bombing.

Since the offensive was unleashed March 29, about 12 Israelis and 200 Palestinians have died in the hostilities, Harel told reporters. About 1,300 Palestinians have been detained by the Israelis, who have identified 500 to 600 prisoners involved in terrorism and 60 to 70 hard-core terrorists, he said. Israeli forces say they have also dismantled more than 10 labs dedicated to preparing terrorist explosives.

Palestinians say civilians have been undeserving victims of the violence and destruction. Their plight caused the foreign ministers of Spain and Belgium to warn Sunday that the European Union will consider sanctions if the Sharon government does not relent.

Discussions of a cease-fire seemed fanciful, though, amid the blood and hate in war zones such as Nablus, the biggest and most militant West Bank city, where close-quarters combat felled three Palestinian leaders Sunday.

Ahmad Tabouk died about noon in the casbah, the old market area where he was undisputed top dog. Tabouk commanded his own armed militant group after years as a feared chieftain of the Fatah movement during the first intifada in the late 1980s and early '90s.

Tabouk was cut down in the street during an exchange of fire with Israeli infantry. His body lay face down, clad in black jeans, sweatshirt and holster.

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