Israel Expands Military Operation in Gaza

Israeli tanks and bulldozers moved toward the packed Jebaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, severing electricity and telephone lines in an operation to stop Palestinian rocket attacks, witnesses and Israeli officials said.

In the West Bank, a Palestinian bystander was killed by Israeli gunfire during a shootout with militants in Nablus (search), witnesses said. Three Palestinians also were wounded, rescue services said.

Earlier, the Palestinian prime minister complained to the United States that Israel was expanding its settlements and preventing Palestinian police from asserting authority in the streets.

"The Israelis are escalating the construction of the roads and the electricity and expanding the size of each settlement," Ahmed Qureia said after meeting U.S. Consul General David Pearce (search).

Qureia also said Israel was blocking his plan to put armed and uniformed police with marked police cars on the streets to help seize control from militants roaming freely with assault rifles.

"There is no security without an ability to control security, including whatever the security apparatus needs," Qureia said.

In the past, Israel has targeted Palestinian police stations, which it says have provided aid to militants fighting Israel. The Palestinians have charged that Israel destroyed the only infrastructure they had to control the militants.

The U.S. Consulate declined to comment on the meeting.

On Monday, the State Department criticized Israel for approving the construction of 600 housing units for Maaleh Adumim (search) — the West Bank's largest Jewish settlement. The United States said Israel had promised to end such activity when it approved the U.S.-backed "road map" for peace with the Palestinians.

Israel's ambassador to Washington, Daniel Ayalon, assured Assistant Secretary of State William Burns on Tuesday that Israel would honor its commitments.

Separately, the State Department updated its advisory warning against travel to the West Bank, Gaza and Israel following the kidnapping of a U.S. citizen last week in the West Bank town of Nablus.

Militants held the unidentified American and two European hostages for several hours Saturday before releasing them unharmed after negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

In Gaza, a helicopter providing cover for Israeli troops outside Jebaliya (search) fired a warning missile, wounding three Palestinians, witnesses and doctors said. It was not immediately clear whether the wounded were militants or civilians.

The move toward Jebaliya expanded Israel's monthlong operation in the town of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip that began after two Israelis — including a 4-year-old boy — were killed by homemade rockets in Sderot (search), an Israeli town two miles from the Gaza perimeter fence.

Five tanks and three bulldozers moved into the area outside Jebaliya, military officials said. Witnesses said soldiers took over several houses and set up positions on rooftops, and helicopters fired machine guns to provide cover fire.

Armored bulldozers cleared farmland and piled dirt on the main road connecting Beit Hanoun and Jebaliya, the witnesses said.

A military spokesman said the army has no immediate intention of entering the refugee camp, where more than 100,000 Palestinians live, since no rockets were being fired from inside.

Despite the effort to push launching sites beyond the range of Sderot, the rocketing of the town has continued almost daily. The militant group Hamas warned on an Arab satellite TV channel Wednesday it will continue bombarding Sderot.

Bulldozers also went into action in the West Bank village of Azzoun Atmeh near Qalqilya, demolishing at least five houses or apartment blocks built without permits.

The village of 2,200 Palestinians is surrounded by Israel's separation barrier, and both gates to the village were locked during the operation, witnesses said.

Abdel Karib Ayoub, head of the local council, said some homeowners had appealed the demolition order to the Israeli courts, but their homes were destroyed before the court ruled.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's efforts to shore up his shaky government and push through his Gaza withdrawal plan advanced when a secular party in his coalition dropped its opposition to letting in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish faction.

Abandoning its main platform pledge to reduce the power of the ultra-Orthodox bloc, the secular Shinui Party (search) said it would allow the smaller of two such parties, United Torah Judaism (search), into the ruling coalition.

But both Sharon and United Torah Judaism on Tuesday rejected Shinui's conditions — no Cabinet post and no chairmanship of the parliamentary finance committee for the small Jewish party.

Negotiations were expected to continue, with the main opposition party, the moderate Labor, still the main candidate to join Sharon's team.

Labor and Shinui strongly support Sharon's "unilateral disengagement." Their presence in Sharon's government would ensure a solid Cabinet majority for the pullback.