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Israel Mops Up in the West Bank as Fighting Slows

Incursion: Sharon reiterates that troops will remain in key cities until 'terrorists' surrender. Palestinians vow counterattack.


JERUSALEM — The Israeli-Palestinian conflict slowed Thursday after two weeks of fighting, as Israeli troops mopped up in combat-torn areas, carried out targeted raids and withdrew from 24 Palestinian villages.

The pause was by no means a peace. Aborted plots by suspected Palestinian suicide bombers, one of whom died in an apparently premature explosion, showed that Israel still faces a terrorist menace. And Palestinians counted their dead on the battlefields of devastated Israeli-held sites such as Jenin and Nablus, trying to assess the toll of the West Bank offensive.

That panorama greeted Secretary of State Colin L. Powell as he arrived here for a high-stakes mediation mission Thursday night. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leaders welcomed Powell with warnings that they do not intend to back down.

Sharon said he had already informed U.S. officials that his troops would not withdraw from key cities until he believed that the threat from militants had been eliminated.

"The army is not leaving Nablus, Jenin, Bethlehem or Ramallah until the surrender of the terrorists in those cities," Sharon told Israeli police commanders here. "The army will reenter any place if necessary; such has happened this morning in Tulkarm."

The Israeli leader was referring to a raid by soldiers, backed by tanks and helicopters, on the home of a suspected suicide bomber in the village of Tulkarm early Thursday. Troops apprehended Shiffa Adnan Qudsi, 24, who allegedly planned to carry out an attack in Israel.

Authorities said Qudsi, whose brother was also arrested, planned to pretend she was pregnant and strap explosives to her belly in order to get past Israeli military checkpoints.

In Hebron, a 22-year-old activist in the radical Islamic group Hamas died when explosives he was carrying blew up. Several passersby were wounded in the blast, which Israeli authorities said occurred as the man was en route to commit an attack.

And the Israeli military reported that it had found an explosives belt of the type used by suicide bombers in a Palestinian ambulance stopped at a checkpoint. The belt was concealed under a body.

Hamas and other extremist groups plan a fierce counterattack against the Israelis, said Abdel Majid Atta, a Hamas political leader in the Bethlehem area.

"The damage of this military operation to the Palestinian resistance will be insignificant because such operations encourage and increase the resistance," Atta said in a phone interview from an undisclosed location. "In our Arab tradition, if anybody is killed unjustly, people have a relative who will seek revenge. . . . [The resistance] is capable of recovering very fast."

Atta scoffed at Powell's hopes of bringing peace.

"If Bush and Powell wanted to stop the incursions, they could have stopped them," he said. "Powell does not have the power to implement a key decision that stops the bloodshed."

On Saturday, an exasperated President Bush demanded that Israel withdraw "without delay" from the Palestinian cities it had invaded. But on Thursday, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer took pains to insist that Bush isn't growing impatient with Sharon.

He emphasized that the demands the president has placed on Israel, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and leaders of Arab nations have gone unmet--and that not only Sharon is to blame.

"The president recognizes that all contribute to what's happening in the Middle East, and he called on all to take certain steps," he said. "No one nation bears the burden or the responsibility of what's happening in the Middle East today."

Meanwhile, Israeli tanks entered the Palestinian towns of Birzeit and Dahariya and the Ein Beit Elma refugee camp near Nablus. Troops seized Birzeit University and government buildings, making numerous arrests.

But the military pulled out of two dozen villages and announced plans to withdraw from more.

Thursday brought a skirmish in the Gaza Strip, which has not been a target of the Israeli military during this offensive. Palestinian gunmen tried to attack an Israeli settlement and got into a shootout with Israeli troops, who killed one attacker, the military said.

Thousands of Palestinians marched in the Gaza Strip to protest the death toll in the Jenin refugee camp, the bloodiest battlefield of the conflict. The Palestinian Authority issued a statement urging the international community to intervene and "stop these Nazi massacres of our people."

The death toll among Palestinians has been put at about 200 but is sure to rise. Some estimates indicate that 200 fighters died in ferocious combat in the Jenin camp alone. That final outpost of resistance fell Thursday when about 30 gunmen surrendered.

The gunmen joined the ranks of 4,185 Palestinians detained in the operation.

With the fall of Jenin, perhaps the most problematic remaining zone of conflict for both sides is Bethlehem. The town is under Israeli control, but more than 140 armed Palestinians remained holed up in the historic Church of the Nativity, revered as the site where Jesus was born, along with almost 80 clerics, monks and nuns.

Monks inside the compound reported Thursday that conditions were deteriorating. The Israeli military confirmed Thursday that an Armenian monk wounded by gunfire a day earlier was mistakenly shot by an Israeli soldier.

Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this report.

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