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Defiant Sharon Presses Ahead in West Bank

Mideast: Troops begin withdrawal from two cities, but Israeli leader suggests that occupation of Palestinian territory is open-ended. Fighting rages in Jenin camp.


JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in his strongest defiance yet of Washington, vowed Monday to press ahead with a massive military offensive in the West Bank. As if to underscore the point, Israeli combat helicopters pummeled a refugee camp and ground forces took hundreds of Palestinians prisoner.

Sharon ignored demands from President Bush and other world leaders to end Israel's invasion of Palestinian cities and instead expanded the deployment of tanks throughout the West Bank countryside. In a speech to parliament, Sharon suggested that far from withdrawal, Israel's occupation is open-ended.

But as pressure mounted, the Israeli army early today began pulling troops out of two small cities, Tulkarm and Kalkilya, which had remained relatively quiet. The White House said it was "a start."

The army said its forces would continue to surround Tulkarm and Kalkilya. Troops came under fire as they retreated from Tulkarm, Israeli state radio said, but no new casualties were reported.

In Nablus, the West Bank's largest city, fighting that had raged for four days began to subside Monday. Scores of men--fighters and civilians--surrendered. Inside the bloodied casbah, the old labyrinthine center of the city, wounded lay dying at a mosque.

In Jenin, Israeli troops, armor and helicopter gunships continued to battle stiff resistance from lightly armed Palestinian fighters hiding in a crowded refugee camp. Israeli and Palestinian officials estimated that at least 100 Palestinians were killed in the last couple of days in the camp. On Monday, two Israeli soldiers were killed and four wounded.

Palestinian gunmen "seem to have decided to fight to the last, to make the battle as bloody as possible," Israeli Brig. Gen. Eyal Shline said of the Jenin operation. He said several men feigned surrender, only to blow themselves up in suicide attacks on soldiers.

At the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which tradition holds is the birthplace of Jesus, a fire erupted during a gun battle between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers. At the Vatican, Pope John Paul II said violence in the Holy Land had escalated to "unimaginable and intolerable levels."

In Jerusalem, Sharon went before a special session of the Knesset, or Israeli parliament, to lambaste Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and announce that he was taking his government further to the right with the inclusion of three new right-wing ministers.

Sharon dedicated most of his hourlong speech, during which he was frequently heckled, to harsh criticism of Arafat. He reiterated that he regards it as impossible to make peace with Arafat, a position that deeply complicates this week's diplomatic mission by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

The Israeli leader said he will not call off the offensive "until the mission has been accomplished, until Arafat's terrorist infrastructures are uprooted" and until those fugitives who are hiding have been arrested.

It remains to be seen how long Sharon can so openly defy Bush. Predicting that the prime minister would eventually have to cave in, Israeli television Monday night featured Bush's latest comments emphasizing his desire for Israel to pull out of the West Bank now. One commentator said Bush was in his "angry Texas cowboy" mode.

"I meant what I said to the prime minister of Israel. I expect there to be withdrawal without delay," Bush heatedly told reporters on a visit to Tennessee.

After Sharon's Knesset speech, U.S. special Mideast envoy Anthony C. Zinni was dispatched to meet with the Israeli leader and convey the Bush administration's displeasure. A few hours later, the army announced its pullback from Kalkilya and Tulkarm.

Powell told reporters after meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah in Morocco that the withdrawal from the two towns was an encouraging sign. "And I hope it is the beginning of a full withdrawal," Powell added.

Sharon launched Israel's biggest West Bank offensive in 35 years March 29, after a wave of suicide bombings that culminated in a Passover Seder attack that killed 27 people, the single largest death toll in a suicide bombing in years.

With catcalls raining in from the left and right, Sharon told the Knesset that when the army does withdraw, it will not be to Israel but to buffer zones that he plans to create. The idea appalled Palestinians and diplomats, who said it would create ghetto-like enclaves for Palestinians and establish a de facto permanent presence by Israel in Palestinian territory.

But Sharon said the zones would allow Israeli forces to guard against infiltrating attackers; the plan is highly reminiscent of the former "security zone" set up by Israel in southern Lebanon.

"In the territories under his rule, Arafat has established a regime of terror, which nationally and officially trains terrorists and incites, finances, arms and sends them to perpetuate murderous operations across Israel," Sharon said.

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