JERUSALEM – Israeli tanks surrounded the Gaza town of Rafah on the Egyptian border early Friday, residents said, hours after tanks entered the West Bank town of Tulkarem.
Residents said about 60 Israeli tanks were involved in the Rafah operation. Witnesses said the Israelis dug trenches in the main road, cutting off the town. There were exchanges of gunfire, but no casualties were reported.
In Tulkarem, residents said about 10 tanks entered the town, on the line between the West Bank and Israeli. The Israeli military said only that some forces has been sent into Tulkarem and the curfew there reimposed.
The military movement, which has become routine in recent months, came as Palestinians and Israelis assessed the meaning of the resignation of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Cabinet a day earlier, just before the parliament was set to tender a vote of no-confidence.
Tulkarem is one of six West Bank Palestinian cities and towns that have been under Israeli military control since mid-June, when Israel sent its army into the population centers following back-to-back homicide bombing attacks in Jerusalem.
Since then, the Israeli military has imposed curfews in the towns, confining hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to their homes. The restrictions are usually lifted during the day in most places, except Nablus, which Israel considers a center of terrorist activity.
Also Thursday, Palestinians in Gaza fired a Qassam rocket at an Israeli village, hitting a house, the military said. The rocket crashed into the kitchen of the house in Saad, about two miles from the Gaza border fence. No one was home at the time and there were no injuries.
Palestinians insist that Israel withdraw its troops from their cities and towns, charging that Israel is stalling implementation of an agreement that was to start the process of an Israeli pullout.
The agreement, announced Aug. 18 by Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and his Palestinian counterpart, Interior Minister Abdel Razak Yehiyeh, designated the West Bank town of Bethlehem and the Gaza Strip as test cases. Israel would hand control back to the Palestinians, and if Palestinian security could prevent terror attacks, Israel pledged to ease its chokehold on the rest of the West Bank.
Israel withdrew its forces from Bethlehem on Aug. 20, but there has been no movement in Gaza. Israel charges that Palestinian security forces are not moving against militants there, pointing to daily mortar and rocket attacks on Israeli army positions, Jewish settlements in Gaza and Israeli villages just outside the fence.
Earlier this week, Israel had sent tanks and troops into Gaza three times, briefly encircling refugee camps and towns, making arrests and destroying houses. Early Thursday, Israeli forces entered a Gaza City neighborhood and blew up the house of a Hamas militant. Palestinians said 32 people were left homeless.