Israel Continues Crackdown on Palestinians

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Israel rounded up 19 Islamic militants in the West Bank on Friday and pounded the Gaza Strip with artillery fire, pressing forward with a crackdown in the wake of a suicide bombing at a shopping mall this week.

In the days since Monday's suicide bombing, which killed five people in the coastal city of Netanya, Israel has killed three militants in airstrikes on the Gaza Strip and rounded up dozens of others in the West Bank.

The army said it carried out an arrest sweep overnight near Tulkarem in the northern West Bank. Ten of the suspects belonged to Islamic Jihad, which carried out the attack, the army said.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has also ordered the arrests of those involved in the suicide bombing. Islamic Jihad leaders say Palestinian security forces have rounded up more than 80 members, including three militants arrested Friday in the village of Monday's bomber. Palestinian officials have confirmed only 17 arrests.

Abu Majd, an Islamic Jihad spokesman in the northern West Bank, said the Palestinian crackdown has weakened his group. "These people are not our top members, but these arrests still affect us," he said. He said those arrested including low-level operatives, university leaders and even high school students.

Even so, the action by the Palestinian security forces fall far short of Israeli demands that Islamic Jihad be dismantled altogether.

Friday's flare-up in violence came a day after an Israeli airstrike killed two Palestinian militants holed up in a house in the northern Gaza Strip, and a Palestinian man fatally stabbed an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint in the West Bank.

The army closed the Qalandia checkpoint — used by thousands of Palestinians to enter Jerusalem each day — after the stabbing. Military officials said it would be closed for at least several days.

Late Thursday, Palestinian militants in Gaza fired two mortar shells into open areas in Israel, causing no damage or injuries, the army said. Israel responded overnight with artillery fire aimed at suspected launch sites used by the militants in Gaza.

In other violence, Israeli troops Friday caught a Palestinian teenager who had strapped explosives to his body. Soldiers spotted the 15-year-old boy at a checkpoint near the West Bank city of Nablus and grew suspicious because he was wearing a heavy coat on a warm day.

Soldiers stopped the teen, and discovered two metal cans filled with explosives and shrapnel taped to his body. The teenager was arrested, and the cans were destroyed by an army bomb squad, the army said.

Major militant groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, denied involvement in the incident.

The increasing violence is likely to influence separate Palestinian and Israeli election campaigns.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, fighting for re-election as head of a new party, faces calls for stiff action against the Palestinians from hard-liners of the Likud Party. Sharon recently left Likud to form a centrist party, saying it would give him more freedom to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Israel's general election is set for March 28.

Palestinians go to the polls on Jan. 25 to elect a new parliament, and the Islamic group Hamas is contesting the election for the first time.

Although Abbas has condemned attacks like the Netanya bombing, his inability to restore order and take control of the streets of the West Bank and Gaza broadcasts weakness and may hurt his Fatah Party in the election.

A prolonged crackdown on Palestinian militants could also turn Palestinian public opinion against Abbas, since he might be viewed as working too closely with the Israelis.