- The Washington Times - Monday, July 16, 2001

HEBRON, West Bank — Israeli tanks moved into the West Bank town of Hebron from three directions early today, destroying Palestinian police posts during a fierce exchange of fire, witnesses said.
The Israeli military said soldiers returned Palestinian fire from several locations in Hebron, the only West Bank town divided into Israeli and Palestinian zones.
Israeli soldiers control the center of the city, where about 450 Jewish settlers live in three enclaves.
The Israeli tanks destroyed five posts belonging to Force 17, an elite unit of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's police. Palestinian officials said nine persons were wounded, none seriously.
[Also yesterday, two Palestinians were killed while preparing a bomb near a Jerusalem stadium where Israel's Maccabiah Games, or Jewish Olympics, are to begin today, police said according to Reuters news agency.
["The bodies of two Palestinians were found in an empty field," a police spokesman said.
["It appears they were killed in a 'work accident' when a bomb they were preparing detonated."
[Some 2,000 Jewish athletes from all over the world are expected to participate in the 16th Maccabiah. The nighttime explosion occurred about a half mile from West Jerusalem's Teddy Stadium, where the opening ceremony for the 10-day event is to be held later today. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is due to attend.]
Yesterday, Israel's Cabinet approved a plan to build new communities near the Gaza Strip on territory that the previous government had considered giving to the Palestinians in a land-swap deal, an official said.
The decision drew criticism from Israeli opposition figures and environmental groups.
Mr. Sharon's Cabinet approved the proposal to develop Israeli communities in Halutza Sands, a desert region adjoining the southeast corner of the Gaza Strip, according to Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin.
While the land is Israeli territory, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak had proposed that Halutza Sands be given to the Palestinians in exchange for Israel annexing Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank, according to Israeli media reports at the time.
Those negotiations collapsed amid the nearly 10 months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, and the Halutza Sands proposal is no longer on the table.
However, Mossi Raz, a member of the dovish Meretz Party, criticized the government decision, saying it could complicate future negotiations.
"I think the government is tying its own hands," Mr. Raz said. "Even if a peace agreement doesn't happen today, what will happen in 10 years?"
Also, environmental groups oppose development of the area, which includes a national park.
There was no immediate word on when building might begin, or how large the proposed communities would be.
Meanwhile, in a latest bid to end Mideast violence, Israel's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat met in Cairo after each held separate talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Mr. Peres denied media reports that Israel was contemplating a large-scale military offensive in the Palestinian areas that could include driving out Mr. Arafat.
"We don't have any intention whatsoever, neither ground attacks or to attack Arafat. Arafat in our eyes is the representative of the Palestinians," Mr. Peres said in Cairo.
In Israel, Rehavam Zeevi, a right-wing member of Israel's Cabinet who favors tough action against the Palestinians, criticized Mr. Peres' meeting with Mr. Arafat.
"What new things did Peres sell this time? We don't know," Mr. Zeevi told Israel radio.
"We have suffered enough from Peres' attitude."
In the West Bank town of Bethlehem, a member of the militant Islamic Jihad group was seized from the street by men believed to be Israeli undercover agents, according to Palestinian security sources.
Mahmoud Hamdan, 42, was grabbed by men who had been masquerading as street vendors in a market, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Israeli military sources confirmed that the army was responsible, and claimed that Mr. Hamdan was a bomb maker for Islamic Jihad.

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