NABLUS, West Bank – Israeli soldiers killed three Palestinian gunmen in arrest raids in the West Bank (search) on Thursday, pressing on with a major offensive against militants even as Palestinian officials said they have begun enforcing a ban on public weapons displays.
In the West Bank, meanwhile, municipal elections were held in dozens of towns, with the Islamic militant group Hamas (search) expected to make a strong showing, despite the Israeli military campaign.
Also Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) reaffirmed his support for the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, trying to dispel speculation that he is formulating an alternative.
Sharon, who led Israel's recent pullout from Gaza (search), spoke a day after confidants suggested that Israel could carry out a similar unilateral withdrawal from some parts of the West Bank and annex others. The road map calls for a negotiated Mideast peace deal.
"Yesterday, there were rumors that Israel is considering other plans," Sharon told an economic conference. "Israel is not considering other plans. There is only one plan, and that is the road map."
Israel launched its military offensive last weekend in response to a series of Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza into southern Israeli towns. It has pushed forward with its series of air strikes and arrest raids, despite pledges by Hamas and other groups to stop the rocket fire.
Early Thursday, Israeli soldiers raided two West Bank towns, Jenin and nearby Burqin, to arrest suspected militants.
In Burqin, troops killed two armed men — the targets of the arrest raid — who appeared about to fire on the force, the army said. Soldiers later found assault rifles and ammunition clips on their bodies, the army said.
Palestinians identified the men as Islamic Jihad militants Nidal Khlouf, 32, and Samer Shalaby, 24.
In Jenin, a militant fired at soldiers, who returned fire and killed him, the army said. Palestinians identified the man as Samer Asady, 30, an Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades militant.
The leader of Al Aqsa in Jenin, Zakariya Zubeydi, said his group would no longer abide by an informal truce that had largely held since February. "The Israelis have not upheld their part of the cease-fire agreement," he said. "We will fight back hard and there will be no limits to our responses from now on."
In a step toward imposing order, the Palestinian police chief, Ala Husni, said his forces began enforcing a ban on public displays of weapons in Gaza and confiscated arms from three people who violated the ban.
Husni said that following the Israeli pullout from Gaza, there is no longer any need for people to carry weapons in public. "The role of resistance weapons has ended in the streets. They should go back into storage and they should not show up in the streets," he said. "Any weapon now in the street is a criminal weapon."
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas announced the ban on weapons displays last week, saying it was a first step toward imposing law and order in Gaza.
Israel says Abbas must dismantle the many Palestinian militant groups and armed gangs to resume peace talks. Abbas has rejected calls to confront militants, saying it would lead to civil war.
On Wednesday, Abbas traveled to Cairo to enlist Egypt's help in trying to end the Israeli offensive. Egypt often serves as a mediator between the two sides.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Israel was trying to teach the militants it would not tolerate attacks from Gaza following its pullout. "It needs to be clear to them that we mean every word we say," Mofaz said. "They need to know the rules of the game have changed," he told Channel Two TV.
Early Thursday, Gaza militants fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli force inside Israel, the army said. No one was injured.
Across the West Bank, voting was taking place in 82 towns and villages, with a total population of 376,000. It was the third of four rounds of municipal elections.
Israel objects to Hamas' participation in elections as long as it remains armed, and many of the Israeli attacks this week have been against Hamas targets.
Turnout was brisk in Tamoun, a village east of Nablus where militants appeared poised for big gains. Dozens of activists holding flags of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group rallied outside polling stations. Uniformed Palestinian police holding handguns and assault rifles stood on guard.
"I came here to vote for Hamas. I want Hamas to win because they believe in God and follow the teachings of the Quran," said Hamda al-Youssef, a frail 73-year-old man who said he was voting for the first time in his life.