Israeli Troops Tighten West Bank Curfews

Israeli troops are keeping at least 400,000 Palestinians under effective house arrest with round-the-clock curfews and largely barring the media from covering its escalating invasion of the West Bank -- an operation that has faced minimal Palestinian resistance and limited international criticism.

The army began "Operation Determined Path" last week, after two suicide bombings in Jerusalem killed 26 Israelis. An earlier wave of Palestinian attacks set off a similar six-week sweep through the West Bank in late March.

But unlike that first extended foray, when Israeli troops encountered heavy fire in several towns and besieged the office of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the new operation has been comparatively low-key. Troops have steadily moved into the Palestinian areas, but without the fanfare or the firefights.

The one exception was Qalqiliya, where two Israeli soldiers were killed in a gunbattle as soldiers entered the town Wednesday evening. The troops pulled out, only to re-enter Sunday morning without resistance.

The lack of prolonged gunbattles and extensive aerial bombardments as well as daily pictures of devastation has muted Arab and European criticism this time, in contrast to Israel's last occupation. Key Arab leaders also have been working with Washington and likely will remain quiet at least until after they've heard President Bush's widely anticipated policy proposal on the Mideast crisis.

During the last incursion, Israeli forces went house-to-house searching for suspected militants and carried out mass arrests of Palestinian men.

In the latest drive into the West Bank the tanks and armored personnel carriers have parked in the deserted streets, and for the most part, have just remained there. The significant exception was the northern West Bank town of Jenin, where many hundreds were rounded up late last week.

"We have no choice but take these measures to stop suicide bombers from killing our women, children, and sometimes babies," Israeli government spokesman Danny Naveh said Sunday. "The Palestinian population is suffering, I can acknowledge that as well. We need to put an end to this suffering -- in both communities."

One reason for the relative absence of resistance this time is that more than 200 Palestinians, many of them militants, were killed and 1,000 arrested in the first round.

Israel says it must track down suicide bombers because the Palestinian security forces are unable or unwilling to do it. However, the first sweep did not stop the bombings for long.

This time around, Israeli troops are using curfews more, in terms of both extent and duration.

Israeli troops have imposed round-the-clock curfews on the five Palestinian cities and towns they control -- Bethlehem, Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarem and Qalqiliya -- as well as a suburb of Ramallah.

About 400,000 Palestinians live in these cities and towns, and they cannot leave their houses to go to work, to school or to shop. The only exceptions are medical emergencies.

Typically, the curfew is lifted for about three hours every third day, during which residents rush to the market to stock up on food.

Palestinians say Israel's goal is clear -- to destroy the Palestinian Authority and replace it with Israeli rule, as was the case before the two sides signed the breakthrough 1993 Oslo Accords.

The Israelis "are continuing the destruction of the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian institutions," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator. "We will end up with Israel fully resuming the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, fully replacing the Palestinian Authority, with the Israeli civil administration and military government."

For much of 21 months of Mideast fighting, journalists have had considerable freedom to cover the fighting up close. But in this operation, Israeli media restrictions are also being more rigidly enforced than before, and journalists have had little or no access to the areas where the army has invaded.

During the earlier sweep through the West Bank, Israel declared some areas closed military zones, thereby barring journalists. The measure was not strictly enforced, and journalists were able to enter many areas, often by using back roads.

But this time, all of the reoccupied areas are closed military zones and journalists have been consistently turned back at checkpoints.

Some Palestinian journalists working for international news organizations and living in the cities under siege have been able to report -- but only to the degree they are willing to play a game of cat-and-mouse with Israeli troops.

"If there are operational considerations at that moment that limit journalists' entry, then they won't be allowed in," said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "In every place where it is possible, there will be supervised entry, guided by army spokesmen."

Israel has not arranged any such trips so far, and in the past they have included little more than formal briefings from Israeli commanders -- and no contact with Palestinians.

"Imposing an indefinite coverage blackout on five urban areas where hundreds of thousands of people live is a flagrant violation of the freedom of the press which Israel is committed to uphold," the Foreign Press Association in Israel said in a statement.

The earlier Israeli incursion drew widespread international criticism, but this time around the response has been muted. In part, this appears related to the increased backing in the United States for Israeli measures to end terrorism.

Bush called on the Israelis to pull out of Palestinian areas on April 4, less than a week after Israel went into West Bank cities. However, the Bush administration did not maintain heavy pressure on the Israelis as that operation carried on, and has largely been supportive of the latest Israeli actions.

Arab leaders object to the reoccupation -- Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher on Sunday called it "unacceptable" to return to Israeli administration of the West Bank. But Arab leaders also have been working with Washington, and until Bush sets out his plan, their voices likely will remain soft.