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Israeli tanks seize territory in switch of tactics: three West Bank towns reoccupied after latest suicide bombings force Americans to shelve peace plan

20 June 2002

Israeli forces rolled back into three Palestinian towns yesterday with no objection from Washington, which only a few weeks ago was demanding Ariel Sharon withdraw his soldiers from parts of the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

President George Bush made no attempt to challenge Ariel Sharon's decision, which followed the suicide bombing in Jerusalem on Tuesday in which 19 Israelis were killed.

After a second suicide bomber blew himself up at a bus stop in Jerusalem last night, killing at least seven people and wounding 35, Israel was poised to launch a prolonged reoccupation of the Palestinian-run areas, in an important policy switch.

The White House spokes-man Ari Fleischer sounded a slight note of caution, saying that President Bush wanted Israel to consider the consequences of any actions that it might take "so that the path to peace can also be pursued". But Mr Fleischer added: "The President understands Israel's right to self-defence, particularly in the wake of an attack of this severity."

Israeli forces had earlier returned to three Palestinian towns Qalqilya, Nablus and Jenin and its neighbouring refugee camp. Palestinian-run territory so-called Area A forms 20 per cent of the West Bank. The remaining 80 per cent has remained under Israel's military control since the occupation began in 1967.

Israel presented its decision to reoccupy Palestinian- administered areas as a "major change in policy" that followed late-night consultations between Mr Sharon and his coalition partners. His armed forces have made daily raids inside Palestinian-run towns and villages and spent months parked outside Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah.

In one area, near the town of Jenin and the adjacent refugee camp, troops set up an encampment of mobile homes and brought in water tanks, apparently preparing for an extended stay. The Israeli military said troops took over commanding positions in the town, declared a curfew and made arrests. They blasted their way into offices of Al Razi hospital, run by an Islamic charity affiliated with Hamas, and blew up a safe, according to the hospital director, Ali Jabareen.

Mr Sharon's office announced: "Israel will respond to acts of terror by capturing Palestinian Authority territory. These areas will be held as long as terror continues. Additional acts of terror will lead to the taking of additional areas." Mr Arafat's aides said Israel's move would only push militias to launch more attacks against Israel.

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, Mr Arafat's adviser, said the Palestinian leader had told the UN envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, that Israel's policy "will sabotage international efforts to save the peace process".

Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinians' West Bank security chief, said the Palestinians could not now co-operate with Israel to arrest those behind suicide attacks. "As long as the Israelis are continuing their invasion, using their tanks, F-16s and Apaches [attack helicopters], there will be no arrests of any Palestinian," Mr Rajoub told The Associated Press from Egypt, where he was meeting officials to discuss Palestinian security matters.

Hanan Ashrawi, a legislator, and Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinians' senior Jerusalem official, were among prominent Palestinians to sign a newspaper advertisement urging groups behind the assaults to "stop sending our young people to carry out such attacks".

Phil Reeves, Jerusalem, and Andrew Buncombe,Washington
Published by the Independent © 2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

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