RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israel said Monday that, after weeks of confinement, Yasser Arafat is free to "go where he chooses," but the Palestinian leader remained in his battered compound as elements of the deal for his release fell into place.
"We have guarantees that the siege on President Arafat will be lifted and that he will be able to leave the country and return at any time," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, minister of information in the Palestinian Authority.
Israel has restricted Arafat's movements since December and has confined him to his offices for four weeks.
Expectations for Arafat's imminent departure came as a large force of Israeli troops, backed by nearly two dozen tanks, rolled into the West Bank city of Hebron and as a standoff continued at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where scores of militants and civilians have been holed up for a month.
Gun battles broke out in several neighborhoods in Hebron, a predominantly Palestinian city that is also home to several hundred Jewish settlers.
Palestinians reported that nine people, including six civilians, were killed in the Israeli incursion, which began before dawn.
In one incident, six people were said to have been killed when an Israeli attack helicopter fired rockets into a house where an activist of Arafat's Fatah faction was hiding. The activist and five others were killed, Palestinians said.
"Right now, it is pretty quiet. But last night, when I moved my mattress into the living room for more safety, it was quite scary," said Ib Knutsen, press officer for the Temporary International Presence in Hebron.
The observer mission of six nations was established to monitor Israel's redeployment out of some Hebron neighborhoods.
Knutsen said the 55 observers were confined to their barracks in three bases as fighting raged.
"We don't feel that we are in danger, but this is the most massive operation the army has launched in Hebron," he said.
Monday night, soldiers continued to search house to house for militants in what the army termed a "limited" operation.
An army spokesman said at least 17 wanted militants were among more than 200 men arrested.
The army said it found two suitcases of explosives and a car bomb primed for detonation.
The operation came two days after Palestinian gunmen from the militant Islamic movement Hamas raided a nearby Jewish settlement on the Jewish Sabbath, shooting dead four people, among them a 5-year-old girl.
Israel Radio reported that one of the Palestinians killed in Hebron had been the "controller" of the attack.
Israeli troops entered the village of Shawara, east of Bethlehem, early this morning and began arresting residents, according to an army spokesman. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
Speaking before a committee of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Monday that troops would not stay on the Palestinian side for long.
"We went there to hit that infrastructure [of militias] and get out quickly," Ben-Eliezer said.
But Israel has made it clear, even as it pulls out of Palestinian-controlled areas, that it reserves the right to reenter at will to arrest militants and thwart attacks. And it is keeping tight blockades around all major West Bank cities, cordoning them off with tanks and roadblocks.
Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Authority, has said that he will not discuss a cease-fire with Israel until it withdraws its troops from all areas occupied since March 29 in response to a string of suicide bombings.
President Bush has repeatedly urged Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to complete the pullout.
An aide to Arafat said he would leave his Ramallah offices only after six wanted Palestinians sheltered there are transferred to a prison near the West Bank city of Jericho, where U.S. and British troops will guard them under an agreement brokered by the Bush administration over the weekend.
On Monday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said a British advance team had already arrived in the region and would soon be joined by an American representative.
Abed Rabbo said he thought the detainees, Arafat's financial advisor and five men convicted of involvement in the October assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, would be transferred by today.
Once the Palestinians are under lock and key, Israel is to withdraw its remaining troops and tanks from Ramallah, paving the way for Arafat's departure.
"Today, Arafat can go where he chooses," said Ben-Eliezer.
Not everyone was happy with the signs of diplomatic progress. Right-wing politicians heaped scorn on Sharon for reversing himself and agreeing to the U.S. compromise on the six wanted men in Ramallah.
Yiftah-Palmach Zeevi, son of the slain tourism minister and a candidate for the leadership of his father's ultranationalist party, said Sharon's decision was a personal betrayal and a national disaster.