WASHINGTON – The Bush administration said Thursday that Israel must withdraw all its troops and tanks from Ramallah and other Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank and Gaza,
"We want to see a full withdrawal," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
His words followed an identical demand from the Palestinians and accelerated growing administration criticism of Israel's tactics in its struggle with terrorism.
Boucher said a pullout would create a better environment for U.S. mediator Anthony Zinni to try to rebuild a truce between Israel and the Palestinians.
As Zinni arrived in Israel, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer ordered a gradual pullback of Israeli troops from Ramallah, the West Bank town where Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has headquarters.
But the Bush administration dismissed the move as insufficient, as the Palestinians had a few hours earlier.
"We do expect a complete withdrawal from Palestinian-controlled areas, including Ramallah, and the other areas the Israel defense force recently entered," Boucher said.
He coupled the demand with a now-familiar call on Arafat "to do more to stop the groups that carry out violence."
The demand has not curbed bomb attacks on Israel, however,
"Both sides, we think, need to take immediate steps to create an environment in which progress is possible," Boucher said.
Israel moved troops and tanks into Palestinian-controlled areas to hunt down terrorists, break up cells and dramatize its determination to stop attacks on Israelis, both in Israel and on the West Bank and in Gaza.
The Bush administration initially withheld criticism of the Israeli incursions, asking only that they not be permanent, and Israel has executed several partial pullouts.
Arabs, meanwhile, suggested that Israel had a green light from the Bush administration to move in. U.S. officials denied the allegation.
But even as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon offered concessions — a willingness to discuss peace moves even while Israel was under attack and an easing of travel curbs on Arafat — the administration stepped up its criticism of Israel.
President Bush on Wednesday said recent actions by Israel were "not helpful," although he prefaced the reproach with recognition of Israel's right to self-defense.
More than 200 members of Congress wrote Bush on Thursday asking him to cite Arafat's security force and two other groups linked to the Palestinian Authority as terrorist organizations.
This would freeze their assets in the United States, and authorize denial of visas to members trying to enter the country and expulsion of those already in the country.
The letter, which drew 230 signatures, commended Bush for his stand against terrorism and for declaring Arafat must be held accountable for Palestinian attacks.
"It's time to take our policy a step forward," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., who helped organize the effort to condemn the three groups.
"There is nothing to distinguish the tactics and suicide bombings of these groups from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or other organizations already recognized by the United States as terrorist groups," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.
The State Department lists 30 groups as terror organizations.
The three groups that members of Congress said should be added to the list are the Al-Aqsa Brigade, which has claimed responsible for several bloody attacks on Israel; the Tanzim, an armed wing of Fatah, the Palestine Liberation Organization faction controlled by Arafat, and Force 17, Arafat's presidential security force.
Senior officers of Force 17 routinely gather intelligence for attacks and operate explosive labs for bomb preparation," the letter said.