Israeli Troops Enter Nablus; Arafat Signs Basis for Constitution

Israeli troops entered the West Bank city of Nablus early Friday, just as world diplomats began talks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat about reforming his regime.

Palestinian officials said Thursday that Arafat had signed a comprehensive law package sitting on his desk for five years, a framework for a constitution granting basic rights to his people and regulating his regime.

The Israeli troops entered Nablus in about 40 tanks and armored personnel carriers, Palestinians said, and entered the Balata camp, headquarters of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade militia, linked to Arafat's Fatah movement.

Israeli forces arrested the Fatah leader in Nablus, Issam Abu Bakr, one of the top political figures in the city, Palestinians said.

The Israeli military said its forces entered Nablus and the Balata camp "in the wake of recent murderous attacks." In a statement, the military said a curfew was imposed, two Palestinians were arrested and the operation was continuing. Also, the military said, the military entered the town of Qalqiliya.

Witnesses said soldiers were going from house to house in the Balata camp by breaking through connecting walls. The military had no comment.

Residents said Palestinians set off two mines under Israeli tanks, and the tanks fired five shells, knocking out electricity in the eastern part of Nablus. A helicopter fired a missile at the camp, witnesses said. There was no word of casualties.

The Al Aqsa group claimed responsibility for two recent attacks — Tuesday's infiltration of a nearby Jewish settlement, in which three Israeli teen-agers were shot and killed, and a suicide bomb attack in Petach Tivkah on Monday, killing an Israeli woman and her granddaughter.

Hours earlier, Israeli forces pulled out of the West Bank town of Bethlehem after holding it in a tight grip for four days. In a statement confirming the pullout, the Israeli military said 42 Palestinians were arrested.

The four-day operation was an exception to the latest Israeli practice — almost nightly incursions into Palestinian towns and villages, lasting only a few hours.

Also Friday, a Palestinian broke through a fence and entered the Jewish settlement of Shavei Shomron, near Nablus, settlers said. They said he tried to break into a house, and settlers killed him before he could harm anyone.

Arafat signed the Basic Law on Tuesday, but Palestinian officials did not confirm that until diplomats were on their way to Ramallah Thursday.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns was the first to see the Palestinian leader. Afterward, Burns expressed support for negotiations that would result in a Palestinian state and "supporting Palestinian efforts to build strong institutions," a reference to the demands for reforms.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer also met Arafat Thursday, and Osama el-Baz, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's political adviser, was due for talks Friday. Over the weekend, CIA Director George Tenet is to begin a mission aimed at restructuring the myriad and competing Palestinian security services.

After meeting Fischer, Arafat said "we have already started" the reform process, noting that he had signed the basic law and others governing the judiciary and banking systems.

The sudden stream of high-level diplomats to the region indicated renewed world efforts to put an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict before it threatens other world efforts, like the struggle against international terrorism.

The "reform" mantra has gained strength in the weeks since Israel ended its large-scale assault on the West Bank. Though Arafat became a folk hero during a month of confinement to his office in Ramallah by Israeli forces during their assault on the West Bank that began March 29, the aura paled quickly.

Palestinians complained that his regime appeared powerless either to stop the Israelis or fix the damage they caused. Polls have consistently shown that many people are dissatisfied with the regime because of corruption, nepotism, inefficiency and flaunting of its own laws.

The Basic Law, a kind of framework for a constitution, is designed to answer some of the complaints. The Palestinian Legislative Council passed the measure in 1997, but Arafat never signed it, setting off years of complaints by frustrated lawmakers.

Among its main points are regular elections for president, a ban on censorship or intimidation of news media, an independent judicial system and a separation of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

Also Thursday, the Israeli government said security agents had arrested two people who drove a suicide bomber to his target on May 22 — a Palestinian and his Israeli wife. It was the first reported instance of an Israeli Jew knowingly helping a suicide bomber, who blew himself up in the Israeli city of Rishon Letzion, killing himself and two bystanders.