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Buoyed by Bush, Israel Presses Military Drive

25 June 2002

Israel, buoyed by US President George W. Bush's new hardline policy on the Middle East, seized the West Bank's largest city and geared up for a major push on the Gaza Strip.

Dozens of Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers poured into Hebron before dawn, killing four Palestinian security officers and arresting more than 100 others in the latest crackdown on militants.

The move came just hours after Bush delivered his much-anticipated statement on the Middle East, clearly urging the ouster of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as a pre-condition for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The speech was widely interpreted here as giving Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government a free hand to take military action against the Palestinians after a series of suicide bombings and attacks that killed 31 Israelis last week.

International reaction to the address was muted, with most Arab and European leaders seeing positive elements but some warning that Arafat's political fate was a matter for the Palestinian people to decide.

Several dozen Israeli tanks and armored vehicles moved into Hebron, population 140,000, and clamped a curfew, while an armored column rumbled into the nearby town of Dura, the Palestinian sources said.

Two Palestinian policemen, an intelligence officer and a security officer were killed when the Israelis opened fire on the Palestinian leadership's Hebron offices, Palestinian security officials said.

At least five other people were wounded.

More than 100 Palestinian policemen were also arrested in the attack on the building that houses various Palestinian security services and the Hebron governor's office.

Among those taken prisoner in Hebron were Nizam al-Jaabari, the head of the city's intelligence services, and Sheikh Jawad al-Natshe, a political leader of the radical Palestinian group Hamas, the sources said.

The army also confirmed it had blown up the Hebron house of Hamas militant Yasser Sharabati, saying it was used to manufacture "explosive belts ready to be used by suicide bombers."

Hebron was the latest target of Israel's week-old Operation "Determined Path", which has left the Israelis enforcing curfews in seven of the West Bank's eight major towns, with only Jericho spared.

The army, which has vowed to remain in Palestinian areas as long as necessary to curb the suicide bombings, encircled Arafat's West Bank headquarters in the town of Ramallah for the third time this month.

The Israeli army continued to round up Palestinian suspects across the West Bank, including members of Hamas, which has claimed most of the suicide attacks on Israeli civilians.

As well as Ramallah and Hebron, Israeli troops have occupied Nablus, Jenin, Qalqilya, Tulkarem and Bethlehem, as well as smaller towns and villages.

Sharon was also setting his sights on the Gaza Strip, where a helicopter raid Monday killed six people in two cars, including two Hamas militants, and wounded 10 others.

The Israeli premier said the helicopter missile attack heralded "a massive military operation" against Hamas, which had been left largely untouched in the 21-month-old conflict.

Published by Agence France Presse © 2002 AFP

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