- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2002

EIN ARIQ, West Bank Israel responded yesterday to an attack on a military checkpoint with air, land and sea strikes against Palestinian targets and by firing a missile into Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah.

The retaliatory strike came a day after Palestinians attacked an Israeli post, killing six soldiers and putting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon under heavy pressure from hard-line members of his coalition government.

Sixteen Palestinians died yesterday. But the strike did little to stem the pressure on Mr. Sharon to re-occupy the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the biggest military loss by Israel in the nearly 17-month Palestinian uprising.

In Washington, lsraeli Embassy spokesman Mark Regev said the Jewish state planned no move to retake land in the West Bank and Gaza now controlled by Palestinians.

Just hours after Mr. Sharon held a meeting of his Security Cabinet, Mr. Regev said there would be no takeover of the "Zone A" areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority. But he said anti-terrorism security measures would be stepped up.

The Palestinian attack and the Israeli response marked a significant escalation in the fighting that began September 2000.

Israel sent tanks and troops into Nablus overnight in one of the biggest assaults to date on a Palestinian area. Nine Palestinians, among them uniformed policemen, were killed in clashes at the edge of the city.

Troops also encircled other towns, completely cutting off travel.

Seven other Palestinians were killed in air strikes on security compounds in Ramallah and Gaza.

A night of silence along Gaza's Mediterranean coast was broken as naval gunships traded machine-gun fire with Palestinian gunmen and 10 tanks rumbled into a southern Gaza refugee camp shortly in a pre-dawn operation today.

Officials at Voice of Palestine radio's headquarters in the Gaza Strip said Israeli forces put explosives in the building and blew it up early today, taking Palestinian radio and television off the air. The Israeli army declined to comment.

The Israeli countermeasures were discussed at the three-hour Cabinet meeting, during which several ministers berated Mr. Sharon for proceeding too cautiously against the Palestinians, according to an official who attended the session.

"I said it was time to enter the entire area and take away weapons from the Palestinian Authority," said Housing Minister Natan Sharanksy, describing the meeting as stormy at times.

Outside Mr. Sharon's home, hundreds of Jewish settlers called on the Israeli leader to target Mr. Arafat and topple his government.

One of the air strikes yesterday almost did. A missile fired from an Israeli helicopter before dawn crashed into a trailer inside Mr. Arafat's Ramallah compound. Mr. Arafat was not injured.

Ben Barber contributed to this report in Washington.

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