JERUSALEM – About 20 Israeli tanks entered the Palestinian town of Beit Hanoun in the Gaza Strip early Sunday, witnesses said, a day after troops killed two Palestinians in the West Bank.
Tanks, accompanied by attack helicopters, headed for the center of Beit Hanoun, firing on a house and blocking all access roads as soldiers imposed a curfew, confining residents to their homes, witnesses said. There were no reports of casualties. The Israeli military would only say there was an operation in progress there.
On Saturday, the army said soldiers shot and killed Sami Haloweh, 42, a furniture shop owner in Nablus, when they spotted an object in his hand, and troops killed Walid El-Masri, 22, after he and others lobbed firebombs and rocks at soldiers.
The army launched "Operation Root Canal" in Nablus four days ago and discovered at least one explosives laboratory, which it said was littered with posters of suicide bombers. Six people have died in the operation, several have been arrested and dozens of buildings have been damaged.
Meanwhile, one of eight men indicted in Florida on terrorism-related charges denied involvement with the Islamic Jihad group.
He told The Associated Press on Saturday that he was a teacher of Islam but never was part of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group the U.S. government calls a terrorist organization.
"I was surprised by the whole allegation. I have no political connections to any political groups now," said Abdel Aziz Awda, 52, one of those indicted. "I don't understand what the claims are against me. Where did I break any laws, can they prove it?"
The 50-count indictment lists 14 bombings and attacks associated with the group, including a suicide attack in Haifa last June that killed 20. The group is held responsible for a total of 100 deaths.
Awda, who lives on the Gaza Strip, said he visited the United States several times between 1989 and 1991. During one of those visits, he said he met with computer engineering professor Sami al-Arian, one of the eight indicted who is on paid leave from the University of South Florida.
The indictment says al-Arian, 45, used the school as a cover to bring Islamic Jihad members to the United States under the pretense of attending academic conferences.
"I have no problems with Americans and in fact I really appreciate Americans," Awda said. Four of the eight, including al-Arian, were arrested in the United States. Four others are abroad, including Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Shallah, who is in Damascus, Syria, and Awda.
Awda insists he was never a member of Islamic Jihad, however, three senior members of the group say he was one of the first members and left the group a decade ago after a falling out.
"A strategy of lies and deception is not new for Islamic Jihad or any other terrorist organization," said Raanan Gissin, an aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Awda was deported by Israel to Lebanon in 1988 for being a member of Islamic Jihad. He returned to the Gaza Strip in 2000.
He is a member of the Palestine National Council, the Palestinians' parliament-in-exile, and in 1997 voted in favor of revoking sections of the PLO charter that call for Israel's destruction.
More than 150 people, mostly Israelis, have been killed in attacks by Islamic Jihad, which was established in 1983. The group is based on Iranian revolution ideology and receives most of its funding and support from Iran.
Also Saturday, a senior Palestinian official ruled out the possibility of a truce in attacks by militant Palestinians until Israel stops its "aggression and occupation."
Planning Minister Nabil Shaath spoke to reporters after talks with Lebanese Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and U.S. threats to attack Iraq.
"The Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people are committed not to stop the intefadeh (uprising) until the Israeli aggression and occupation are eliminated," he said.
Families in Nablus picked through piles of rubble on Saturday after several buildings were damaged in Israeli searches for militants.
"There is no need to turn everything in the house upside down," said Nabila Darwazeh, whose husband and brother-in-law were arrested Saturday. "They are searching the houses of innocent people and arresting all the men. It is painful and unacceptable."
Faiza Hella, a 56-year-old mother of eight, moved in with neighbors after her house was damaged in the raid. Her two sons were arrested Friday but released the next day. The army spokeswoman said buildings are often damaged in such operations.
"It is not enough to demolish our house," Hella said. "They keep us all night in this cold weather for nothing."
In other developments, a meeting between Sharon and opposition leader Amram Mitzna was postponed for "technical reasons," diplomatic officials said. Sharon is trying to bring the left-of-center Labor Party into his government, but Mitzna made a campaign pledge to shun such an alliance. Mitzna has since said he will join a Sharon-led government if the prime minister agrees to take significant steps toward resuming peace talks with the Palestinians.