- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 22, 2002

TULKARM, West Bank For the first time in 16 months of fighting, Israeli troops took over an entire Palestinian town yesterday, imposing a curfew, searching homes and arresting suspected militants in retaliation for attacks on Israeli civilians.

One Palestinian was killed and 15 were wounded in gunbattles as troops took over Tulkarm.

Early today, Israeli tanks entered a neighborhood in the West Bank town of Nablus, Palestinian security officials said.

It was not immediately clear whether the Nablus raid would be as extensive as the one in Tulkarm.

In Nablus, several tanks drove into the Al Majeen neighborhood, just outside the city center, before dawn. Residents heard sporadic gunfire, but apparently there was no heavy Palestinian resistance.

There was no immediate comment by the Israeli military.

In a separate clash yesterday in Ramallah, also on the West Bank, a Palestinian intelligence officer was killed and two other members of the security services were wounded.

The Tulkarm raid was the latest in a series of unprecedented reprisals for a deadly Palestinian shooting attack on an Israeli banquet hall last week. It was seen as a further blow to the standing of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who has been unable to leave his Ramallah compound because of Israeli armored vehicles parked outside.

Mr. Arafat yesterday said Israel had "crossed all red lines" by taking over Tulkarm.

Israeli officials said the aim of the raid was to round up militants and prevent future attacks on Israelis. Palestinian officials accused Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of trying to topple Mr. Arafat.

At about 3 a.m. yesterday, dozens of Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers, backed by helicopter gunships, rolled into the town.

Palestinian gunmen shot at Israeli troops, drawing return fire. The heaviest fighting came in the adjacent Tulkarm refugee camp, where many gunmen fled after Israeli troops took over the town. Doctors said one civilian was killed and a second critically wounded. Fourteen persons were wounded by gunfire.

The governor of Tulkarm, Izzedine Sharif, urged residents over mosque loudspeakers to defy the curfew and resist Israeli troops.

Troops took over eight buildings, including a local college and the villa of the mayor, sandbagging rooftops and hoisting Israeli flags there.

Soldiers also commandeered a police operations room and detained two Palestinian policemen, witnesses said. The main government compound in Tulkarm, which also contained the police headquarters, was razed last week in an Israeli air strike in response to the attack on the banquet hall.

Soldiers went from house to house looking for militants, including members of the Al Aqsa Brigade, a militia linked to Mr. Arafat's Fatah movement, Mr. Sharif said. Israeli reports said more than 20 suspects were detained.

A defiant Mr. Arafat, who called a truce with Israel last month, said the Palestinians would resist. "Our people will never keep silent about all of these Israeli attacks," he told visitors at his headquarters.

The 72-year-old Palestinian leader also said he might not be around long enough to witness the creation of a Palestinian state. "I swear to God I will see the Palestinian state, as a martyr or while still alive," he said.

Israelis and Palestinians are locked in a long battle, Mr. Arafat said, and the Israeli tanks outside his office will not change that.

"I say to these tanks, the Israeli tanks outside, this is not the first time, and it's not going to be the last time they besiege us. They should remember what happened in Beirut," Mr. Arafat said, referring to Israel's 1982 siege that ended with his expulsion from the Lebanese capital. Mr. Arafat rebounded and returned to the Palestinian territories as their leader in 1994.

Col. Yair Golan, an Israeli brigade commander, said troops would not stay long in Tulkarm and that the situation would be evaluated every day.

Israeli Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh said the aim was to round up militants and prevent more attacks on Israelis. He suggested that other towns could be targeted as well.

"Mainly in the northern West Bank, there is a very profound infrastructure of terrorist attacks from all organizations, which is likely to blow up among us at any time in the most deadly fashion," Mr. Sneh told Israel Army Radio.

Since the outbreak of fighting in September 2000, Israeli troops repeatedly have entered Palestinian-ruled towns and cities, but yesterday's raid was the largest and marked the first time Israel took over an entire town.

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