- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 16, 2002

JERUSALEM Israeli troops withdrew from three West Bank towns yesterday, scaling down its biggest military operation since 1982, but failed to comply with American demands that it leave all Palestinian-controlled areas to give a boost to U.S. envoy Gen. Anthony Zinni's truce mission.
In recent fighting, nine Palestinians were killed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Three Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire in Gaza, including one accused by the army of trying to plant bombs. Also, a Palestinian woman, three of her children and her nephew were killed in a mysterious explosion in a Gaza refugee camp, and a suspected Palestinian informer for Israel was shot dead by gunmen in the West Bank.
Nevertheless, Gen. Zinni said yesterday he was confident Israel and the Palestinians can begin carrying out a cease-fire deal in the next few days. He said his meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials since arriving the previous afternoon have been "extremely positive."
"I think in the next few days that we can start on my mission and the implementation for the plan that we have brought," Gen. Zinni told reporters after a meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at his West Bank headquarters.
Earlier in the day, Gen. Zinni held talks with Israel's defense and foreign ministers in his latest bid to forge a truce in nearly 18 months of violence.
Israel pulled its troops out of the West Bank towns of Ramallah, Tulkarm and Qalqilya. But troops remained in Bethlehem and the adjacent town of Beit Jalla, and tanks ringed the nearby refugee camps of Dheisheh and Aida.
The withdrawals began several hours after the envoy's arrival on Thursday and were complete by yesterday morning, though troops remained stationed close to the three towns, enforcing a blockade that kept Palestinians confined to their communities.
After his talks with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Gen. Zinni said, "Despite the conditions, I think there are the ingredients here for hope."
Mr. Peres and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer were also optimistic. The foreign minister said success was possible in Gen. Zinni's mission "because both sides want it and need it."
The United States was exerting strong pressure on Israel to leave all Palestinian-controlled areas. Israeli officials told Gen. Zinni that their troops would have to remain in some Palestinian areas to prevent attacks on Israelis by militants.
Palestinian officials ruled out any direct cease-fire talks with Israel until the troops pulled out completely.
After three days under a round-the-clock curfew imposed by the troops, thousands of Palestinians poured into the streets of Ramallah to bury four of the 13 Palestinians killed in fighting in the town since Tuesday.
Some 20,000 Israeli soldiers had been deployed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in recent days in the largest military operation since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon Israel's response to a string of attacks by Palestinians.
In the Bureij refugee camp in Gaza, a woman, three of her children and her nephew were killed when a bomb went off near their donkey cart. Palestinian security officials said Israeli troops had planted mines in the area before withdrawing earlier in the day, to prevent suspected militants from reaching the nearby border fence with Israel.
The Israeli military said it had nothing to do with the explosion.
In the bloodiest period since the fighting began September 2000, 185 Palestinians and 62 Israelis have been killed since the beginning of March.

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